Saturday, July 9, 2016

Pine Flycatcher and 2016 Big Year Update

I just had an opportunity to get down to southeastern Arizona to do 3 days of birding in one of my very favorite places to visit.  It was over 100 degrees each day, topping out one day at 105, but it was still enjoyable.  On the 4th of July I spent my time over in the Sierra Vista area birding in Miller and Carr Canyons.  The hummers at the Beatty Guest Ranch were fun to watch even though the white-eared hummer they often get each year did not come in to feed.  The hummer group included broad-billed, broad-tailed, magnificent, rufous, black-chinned, violet crowned and anna's. My highlight for the day was seeing a northern pygmy owl up close that I found sitting on a tree branch as I was driving down the windy Carr Canyon road late in the afternoon.  I was about to take a picture when another car drove up and scared the owl off.

On Tuesday the 5th I was up at 4 AM so I could get down to Madera and Florida Canyons before first light in order to try for poor wills along the road.  Sure enough I found 3, and then spent about an hour walking part way up Florida Canyon listening to the morning chorus.

I stopped next on my way up to Madera Canyon to check out the desert species, and saw most of the usual suspects for this time of the year such as varied bunting, lucy's warbler, phainopepla, verdin, Bell's vireo, brown-crested flycatcher, canyon towhee, and rufous-winged, black-throated and Botteri's sparrows.

I then went up to the Santa Rita Lodge to look for the plain-capped starthroat that had been reported the day before. I ended up being there most of the day, arriving before 8 AM, and finally leaving a bit scorched from all the sun at 7:30 PM.  There were several other birders who came and went, but none of us saw the starthroat fly in. We were entertained all day by many other hummers including a single brilliant male rufous, and many broad-billed hummers.  Other birds coming to the feeding area included magnificent, anna's and black-chinned hummers, hepatic tanager, Scott's oriole, lesser goldfinch, brown-headed and bronzed cowbirds, Arizona and acorn woodpeckers, dusky-capped flycatcher, wild turkey, varied bunting, white-breasted nuthatch, bridled titmouse, Mexican jay and house finch.

Wednesday I was up again at 4 AM to make the 1 hour drive down to the intersection of Hwy 83 and Gardner Canyon road where I met Melody Kehl, a local bird guide.  I have known Melody for years beginning when I road into California Gulch with her to see 5 striped sparrow and buff-collared nightjars.  She was driven by her husband because of the absolutely worst road I have ever been on since the first trip many years ago into California Gulch.  Edge Wade was also with her, a birder that I also met several years ago who lives in Columbia, MO where I grew up.  I had last seen her during my big year in 2010 when we bumped into each other in South Dakota looking at an orange-billed nightingale-thrush.

Our goal for the morning was to try to see the first documented pine flycatcher found in the ABA area.  Even though it was only 5-6 driving miles into the campsite where the bird had been found on May 30th, it took almost an hour to traverse this just horrible road that is actually pretty good for the first 3 miles.  On our way in we heard black-chinned sparrows calling.

The pine flycatcher is found in Mexico and Guatemala, and is very similar to a cordilleran or pacific-slope flycatcher which are common in the west of the U.S. The sun was beginning to shine on the treetops in the campsite when we arrived at 6 AM, and fortunately the bird was sitting on the nest it had built 3 weeks earlier.  Over the next hour we were able to get good looks at the flycatcher as it would periodically leave the nest to feed (the photos above and below were taken by Neil Hayward who had seen the bird a couple of weeks earlier--click on any photo to enlarge).

We also saw a pair of sulfur-bellied flycatchers that were nesting in a sycamore tree, and had a first year male elegant trogon fly in. Towhees and juniper titmice were calling.  As we were leaving 2 more high clearance vehicles arrived with 7 more birders.  On our way out we found 2 montezuma quail crossing the road.

I was back at my car at 8 AM, and Melody and Edge headed off to try for another Mexican rarity--a slate-throated redstart that had bred in the Chiricahuas over the past few weeks.  I checked my email and saw that I had a message from John Weigel who is doing a big year.  He was at his hotel in Green Valley, the town below Madera Canyon, so I drove over to visit with him, stopping at Paton's and the Patagonia rest stop on the way.  John and I had a nice visit, and then I drove back up to Tucson to have dinner with a long time friend who I had been staying with on this trip.

Seeing John prodded me to add to this post a mid year update on those birders doing a full ABA area big year in 2016. The headline has to be that as in 1998 when North America last experienced a full blown el nino, this year has seen a huge number of vagrants show up. But what is decidedly different in 2016 is the number in the first half of the year that have come to the lower 48 states.  Also, because of the far superior communication via the internet, the big year birders are able to find out about rarities quicker, and in turn reach the birds in a more timely fashion which raises the odds of seeing a rarity.

How many people are doing a full ABA area big year is hard to determine, but I know of 4 who definitely are engaged in what is a huge undertaking.  Because most of these 4 are listing their sightings on ebird, or have a blog site, it is possible to track their progress.

As of today, Olaf Danielson ( has seen 746 species plus has the pine flycatcher as a provisional (a bird documented for the first time in the ABA area that if accepted after a review process by the state in which it was found, and then by the ABA will be added to the ABA area list).  Right behind him is John Weigel ( who has seen 741 species plus 2 provisionals (cuban vireo and pine flycatcher).  In third is Christian Hagenlocher ( at 689 species with 2 provisionals (cuban vireo and pine flycatcher). In fourth position is Laura Keene who my readers may remember is a birding friend that provides me with so many good photos for this blog. She is at 665 plus 2 provisionals (cuban vireo and pine flycatcher).

For those not familiar with ABA area big years, these species totals for early July are historic in the case of Olaf and John.  In 1998 when Sandy Komito set the record during the last el nino, he reached 696 birds by this date, and went on to set the then new record of 748 species seen by the end of 1998. In 2013 Neil Hayward broke Sandy's record when he saw 749 species, but his total on the first of july was only 653 species.

The ABA applies a code to each species seen in the ABA area.  Code 1 and 2 cover at this point 672 birds out of the almost 1000 bird species ever recorded in the ABA area which is all of North America above the Mexican border.  Practically all of the code 1 and 2 birds will be seen by a birder doing a full ABA area big year.  So the key to putting up a big number and possibly setting a new big year record is tied to how many code 3-5 species are seen.  In 1998 Sandy saw an amazing total of 96 code 3-5 birds.  Neil saw only 81 code 3-5's in 2013, but made up the difference with code 1-2 birds that had been added to the ABA list between 1998 and 2013.  These added birds are a result of splits of existing species, and introduced or exotic species that have been added to the ABA list.

What is truly amazing for all 4 of these birders this year is the huge number of code 3-5 birds they have already seen, and there are still almost 6 months left in the year.  I do not have the exact numbers of rarities for Laura (65+) or Christian (50+), but including provisionals John has seen 89 and Olaf has seen 79 rarities.  Even though John has more rarities seen so far, Olaf is currently a bit ahead of John in total species because he has already seen almost all of the code 1-2's whereas John has several more to pick up.  That should change over the next few weeks as John fills in his missing code 1-2's.

Finally, what is also different about this big year is that it is the first time at least 4 birders will see more than 700 species in a year.  Even more significant is that in every other record setting big year for the full ABA area, the "race" has not really been close between the leader and the runner-up(s).  And given Olaf and John's current totals, at least 2 of these 4 will break the record set in 2013.

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