Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Another All-time High: Broad-billed Hummingbird

I just checked Broad-billed Hummingbird numbers. Fifty-nine. 59. Five times ten plus nine.

The previous all-time national high, set by our neighboring Santa Catalina Mountains CBC in 2011 was 40.

Monday, December 15, 2014

A New State Record – 166 Species

As of last night’s countdown, I had counted up 166 species, but I had written down Clay-colored Sparrow twice. So the pretty rock-solid total stood at 165. Then I later found a Canada Goose on one of the lists, so it's back up to 166. There were plenty of rarities, including staked out vagrants as well as some big surprises. But the non-stakeout birds were seen by multiple skilled observers who have already turned in photos or descriptions, making my post-count compiling work so much easier.

It’s hard to pick a “bird of the count,” but I’ll have to go with Vermilion Flycatcher again. If you read in previous posts about the astonishing explosion in Tucson’s resident population, you’ll understand why 387 Vermilion Flycatchers has me simply stunned.

Here’s a quick summary followed with some photos from my day covering Area 22  on bicycle with Jazelle Mondeau.

First what we missed: Seen in the first half of Count Week but missed yesterday: Bullock’s Oriole, Swamp Sparrow, and Redhead. Seen within a week or two and missed: Canada Goose and Magnificent Hummingbird. Not exactly rarities, most certainly present in the circle, and just very local and difficult to locate are Crissal Thrasher, Whiskered Screech-Owl, and Barn Owl. And who knows what rarities are lurking in apartment complexes, lush yards, and blooming eucalyptuses that just weren’t discovered (because a 7.5-mile-radius circle is HUGE)?

Here’s a simple list of the rarities (some staked out, some wonderful surprises) that we can’t expect to get on every year’s CBC, and some certainly not again for a very long time:

American Avocet
Common Poorwill
Lewis's Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Red-breasted Sapsucker
Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet
Hammond's Flycatcher
Ash-throated Flycatcher
Bell's Vireo (new to the CBC)
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Eastern Bluebird
Louisiana Waterthrush
Virginia's Warbler (new to the CBC)
Lucy's Warbler
Northern Parula
Pine Warbler
Wilson's Warbler
Summer Tanager
Clay-colored Sparrow (nine!)
White-throated Sparrow
Lazuli Bunting
Baltimore Oriole (new to the CBC)
Red Crossbill

I’ve not entered any of the data in order to really start analyzing numbers (and won’t be able to for a few weeks now), but I had to take a quick peek at some, so here’s a sneak preview at some of the exciting results.

My recent scouting efforts as well as eBird submissions hinted that we might get a lot of Black-throated Gray Warblers. Jazelle and I had six in our area alone, while the 42-year average for the entire CBC is only four. Yesterday’s total of 26 is amazing, more than twice the previous high.

I wasn’t prepared to see the astounding number of Cassin’s Vireos though. It’s always less common than Plumbeous Vireo and is missed on about a third of recent counts (such as last year). This year we had 12, which is triple our previous high count and sets a new all-time national high (the previous high was 10, set by San Diego 11 years ago, but of course this year’s results aren’t in yet). Not incidentally, we had 19 Plumbeous Vireos, tying our all-time high from two years ago.

Jazelle and I took a short lunch break at the Rillito Downs Farmers Market, seeing  a soaring Cooper’s Hawk in the process.

We found fewer Vermilion Flycatchers in our area than last year, but we saw more of them in odd little places, such as this pair in a tiny strip of desert between two apartment complexes on the south side of River Road.

We saw two Mountain White-crowned Sparrows (notice the black supraloral stripe and the redder bill) in the Rillito River bed; we walked the entire length of the 1.2 mile stretch of it in our area. This is the subspecies Zonotrichia leucophrys oriantha and has a very good chance of being split from the much more abundant arctic-breeding Gambel’s White-crowned Sparrow. A few other groups also noted this subspecies, which normally winters south of here.

It was also a day of celestial phenomena. Those who went owling in the early morning hours enjoyed the Geminid meteor shower (I saw about 3-4 per minute for over a half hour), and we all finished the day with this lovely Sun Dog.

Many thanks again to Tucson Audubon Society for renting the Tucson Junior League room for our countdown and especially to Jennie MacFarland for preparing the potluck for all of us, and to her and all my amazing friends for helping with the cleanup.

After writing the above, I broke away from more urgent duties and just had to look at a few more species numbers. It turns out we're in the running for the national high of House Finches this year (more than 5600), and we broke all-time national highs for Cooper's Hawk, Gila Woodpecker, and Verdin. With Vermilion Flycatcher and Cassin's Vireo, that's an amazing FIVE all-time national highs broken! Stay tuned for the official final numbers in the next several weeks.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Storm Has Passed

This evening's sunset view of Mount Kimball from Roger Rd at the end of Vine Ave.
The Pacific storm passed through mid-day today, almost exactly as forecast. One-half to two-thirds of an inch of rain fell throughout the Tucson Basin over the course of about 5 hours, a bit more than predicted. And fortunately for the Area 15 team hiking to the top of Mount Kimball, it seems that the snow level stayed above its 7250-foot peak, rather than the forecast 6000.

Have fun tomorrow, everyone!

Tucson Valley's 2013 High Counts

Tucson Valley is a very special CBC for the large number of birds that call this place home all year. In Brent Ortego’s summary for last year’s CBC, Tucson ranked 4th in the continental United States for the number of species for which it had the high count, tied with the Clewiston, Florida CBC (home to large numbers of mostly wintering birds).  The three CBCs with more species highs were Matagorda County Mad Island Marsh, TX; Atascosa Highlands, AZ; and Santa Barbara, CA.

Seven of the ten species for which we had the high counts last year are residents here with unusually large populations, some of which have grown tremendously in the past five years. Here they are, with some comments.

Cooper’s Hawk – 99
As recently as 25 years ago only 6 were found.

Rock Pigeon 5375
Ho hum. We’ve had a lot more in the past, but no obvious trend here.

Broad-billed Hummingbird 35
An amazing explosion in our resident population.

Gila Woodpecker 496
This is actually a lot fewer than last year.

Vermilion Flycatcher 267
This is mind boggling. I presume our resident population somehow went over a tipping point, but no one really knows why we suddenly have so many. I'm not complaining.

Verdin 624
Not as many as the year before, but we kind of have the corner on the Verdin market, as long as we have lots of participants. The Salt-Verde River CBC usually has a lot of these as well and in the past has held the national high count.

House Finch 2583
This was a surprise, especially since it’s the 6th lowest number per party-hour we’ve ever had. It seems that top honors go to a different CBC each year, almost always in California (though frequently Stockton), and often with numbers over 4000. I think it’s clear that the severe drought there has had an effect.

Finally, we had three highs for birds just visiting here in the winter.

Greater Pewee 1
This is a rarity anywhere in the US in winter, and we’ve had it a few times in the past.

Plumbeous Vireo 7
This is a far cry from the previous year’s all time record of 19, but this is still one of the best places to find this scarce winter bird.

Louisiana Waterthrush 1

Our neighboring CBC, Santa Catalina Mountains also had one, so we each tied for the high count last year. Southeastern Arizona just gets a very few stragglers of this species at the very northern edge of its winter range in the mountains of Middle America.

Friday, December 12, 2014

eBird and the CBC

If you don’t eBird, ignore this. No, wait. If you don’t eBird, eBird. Get an account, spend a weekend figuring it out, and make it a part of your life. It’s the future. Do you eBird? Got eBird?

But it is too late for the Tucson Valley CBC, coming up in 2 days, to learn the intricacies of eBird. If you keep very precise location and effort data all day (hello, notebook and pencil), you can enter it later.

First of all, the CBC and eBird protocols for keeping track of distances are different. The CBC protocol requests that you list your ENTIRE distance – keeping foot, car, bicycle, boat, and golf cart data separate. eBird protocol on the other hand asks that you not count distances that are backtracked. If you’re looping back a hundred yards farther east on the opposite side of a huge wash, that’s different; if you’re retracing your steps on a trail, don’t count the return distance.

Keep track of exactly where you bird, when you arrive, how long you birded there, how far you walked or drove, and what species you saw there in which numbers. Next stop, write down the time, location, and at the end the time, distance. In between is the species list and numbers.

If you use BirdLog ( from your smartphone, it can plot the location and mark the start time, so all you need to do is the distance and species numbers. Later you can use BirdLog to upload the lists into your eBird account.

A Bit of Scouting Pays Off

Yesterday, December 11, was three days before the CBC. This defines the beginning of Count Week, the period during which we start keeping track of all species seen in the circle. Vagaries of bird movement and visibility, combined with the limited number of observers in any CBC circle, almost always means that some species are missed on Count Day. But it's assumed that any species at least within three days either side of that date reflects more closely the actual diversity present. There are many instances torturing CBC compilers throughout history when rarities were seen only the day before and after the actual CBC.

In hopes of preventing that with the long-staying Baltimore Oriole that has been at Sweetwater Wetlands (and seen by probably hundreds of birders by now), I rode my bike there yesterday about mid-day and impaled four orange halves on branches. I saw that someone else had thought of this, but that orange half was already consumed.

On my way down the bike path along the Santa Cruz River bed, just as I could first see Sweetwater's recharge basins, I stopped to pish at some sparrow activity in the brushy bottom. Instantly came the sharp "pink!" of a White-throated Sparrow, distinctly different than the many White-crowned Sparrows.

I got this bad photo of it, perched below a female Vermilion Flycatcher. (By the way, I'd be surprised if we get as many Vermilions as last year's phenomenal count, but there are a lot around, this one in atypical habitat symptomatic of big numbers.) This is the only White-throated Sparrow that has been reported from the circle so far this winter, though there are certainly more, and there's a good chance one or more will be found on count day. (One found by Paul Suchanek in Ventana Canyon last week was probably just outside the circle.)

Then on my way home, after a short stop at the hardware store, I passed by Jacobs Park where Keith Kamper and I had found Lewis's Woodpecker 15 days ago – with no other reports of it or any other in the circle. It's a rare bird here. Upon my arrival I found it in the same ornamental ash tree where I had first seen it. It then flew up to some palm trees in a nearby yard, also the exact same thing it did two weeks ago. This time it perched for at least a bad photo.

At least the team covering this area now knows visiting out-of-the-way Jacobs Park should be a priority in the morning (it will be busy with soccer games in the afternoon).

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

BirdTrax Google Gadget

The gadget below should show a list of species that have been reported to eBird within the Tucson Valley CBC within the past 2 weeks.

It looks like the number it calculates is using some sort of faulty formula. When I copy and paste the list into an Excel file, it adds up to 154 species, while BirdTrax had calculated 173. Of course there are several species in the circle which haven't been eBirded, especially those from the highest elevations in the circle (Brown Creeper, Yellow-eyed Junco, Steller's and Mexican Jays, Golden Eagle).

The only owl is Great Horned, and there are certainly many Western Screech and a Barn or two in the circle. Anyone know of Burrowing Owls? Notably missing is Loggerhead Shrike! We missed shrike for the first time just four years ago. Last year we only had 2.

BirdTrax is certainly a fun tool, but the total we have at the end of this coming Sunday will still be a surprise.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Rare Warblers on the CBC Take 2

The following have been seen in this past week within the Tucson Valley CBC circle:

A Black-and-white Warbler at Sweetwater Wetlands in the winter of 2010-11
Black-and-white Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Yellow Warbler
MacGillivray's Warbler
Townsend's Warbler
Black-throated Gray Warbler


And I guarantee that hasn't been all of them. There's quite possibly a Wilson's Warbler at the Reid Park Zoo, as one has wintered there in recent years and an adult male was eBirded from the exact same location on a suspiciously late date in November.

We've recently had some nice warblers discovered on count day, such as Ovenbird (two years ago), Palm Warbler (last year).

Also consider the warblers discovered only in the few days or weeks after the CBC in past years: Black-throated Blue Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Pine Warbler – almost all certainly birds that had been on winter territories for some time.

So get out there and bird all over the place – parks, alleys, pockets of trees around apartment complexes and office buildings, washes, and all along the Santa Cruz River. Your scouting efforts don't have to be in your assigned area. And have fun!

Friday, December 5, 2014

There’s No Such Thing as a Boring CBC Area

At least not in the Tucson Valley Christmas Bird Count circle. Just look as this amazing spread, covering two large drainages (the Pantano-Agua Caliente-Rillito complex draining from the east and the Santa Cruz River from the south), some nice wetlands (think Sweetwater), several lush parks, a large number of golf courses with ponds (I can think of 11 different courses and parts of 2 more), a big, old cemetery full of pine trees, and a decent chunk of Pusch Ridge up to forested Kimball Peak.

But let’s look at the area I usually do on the CBC. At 2.89 square miles, Area 22, officially known as  “U of A Farm and the Rillito from Campbell to First” is the second smallest in the entire circle, and it’s notable for not having any water and no parks. It’s largely rather open residential areas with lots of Rock Pigeons, Mourning Doves, and House Sparrows. This is arguably the least interesting area in the circle, but this is my preferred area, as on a bicycle (as I’ve done it many years since 1998), I can cover it pretty thoroughly, and throughout the years it has produced a good number of rarities. Given that there is more, better, and more interesting habitat in every other area of the circle, this little summary here should give you an idea of what is possible. Here are two views of the area, from Google Earth and Google Maps.

It’s also where I live, which is more than convenient. This is how we’ve gotten Ruby-throated Hummingbird on the CBC (the first state record, I saw it at my feeder while preparing to leave for a tour to Oaxaca, and it was still there when I got back 10 days later), as well as Violet-crowned Hummingbird.

All of the good birds were found in the lush neighborhoods and washes within a half mile of the Rillito, and that’s probably significant. One of the best birding areas is in fact the University of Arizona’s agricultural center on Roger Road, though surprisingly it hasn’t resulted in any rarities (yet). It has been a reliable place for wintering Bronzed Cowbirds, however.

But it’s clusters of cottonwood, ash, or pecan that seem to attract the rarities. Feeders help, of course (the Cape May Warbler that pre-dates me on the 1993 CBC was at a feeder), and some of the rarities have even been in blooming Eucalyptus, such as the Calliope Hummingbird.

The 2002 Clay-colored Sparrow was a state bird for many in the weeks following the CBC.

Rare Warblers on the CBC Take 1

Laurens Halsey re-found and photographed this Lucy's Warbler yesterday at Sweetwater, not seen since it was eBirded by Marshall Iliff and others on November 22. If we can find it again on Dec 14, it will be the first Tucson Valley CBC record and one of very few winter records for anywhere in the state.

CBC Feeder Watchers needed!

The Tucson Valley CBC could conceivably have 50, 100, or even 200 people contributing by watching their feeders for only a few minutes this day. But we currently have only 5 dedicated feeder watchers. Then again, if we do come close to having the same number of feeder watchers as, say, the Victoria, BC, or Edmonton, AB Christmas bird counts, I'll need another volunteer co-compiler to coordinate them.

Thanks to the talented Eng-Li Green for designing this flyer.