Tommy J. DeBardeleben

The Maricopa County Big Year of 2010

Hello everyone,

This year in Arizona, as some of you knew, I decided to do a big year in
Maricopa County nearly the entire year of 2010.  Birding in this county
has incredible potential, and I came up with a total of 304 species in
Maricopa County for this year in 2010.  I apologize for this very long
post, but I think many of you will enjoy reading it, as I certainly
enjoyed doing this big year in the county.  I also haven’t had much
computer access this year and I haven’t been able to report as much as I
wished, so this long post can make up for it :) This Maricopa County Big
Year was the one of the most exciting things I have ever done in my life,
which is why I want to summarize my big year in this post and share it
with the rest of you.  My goal is to maybe get several birders interested
in doing county big years for themselves, I think many of you would enjoy
it, which is why I chose to write this report.  I’m hoping that my report
will perhaps spark an interest in getting birders more interested in
covering the different counties in Arizona more thoroughly, and it is
great fun to find as many birds as possible in one given area.  Not only
is it fun for yourself, but it contributes so much to the knowledge of
different areas.  If we had one birder regularly birding in each county
every year, we would have more state records and many new county and
county nesting records.  Because I was motivated and dedicated to do this
big year, I found a nice population of Dusky-capped Flycatchers in a
drainage at Slate Creek Divide that were feeding young which breeding of
this species was never detected in Maricopa County prior to this year (And
I almost slept in that day).  The more we explore the counties in depth
(especially the under birded ones), we will have an incredible amount of
excitement throughout the state.  My goal of this report is to summarize
the year in the county month-by-month, explain where my idea came from to
partake in this big year, explain the many habitats and key locations of
Maricopa County which made this big year possible, and also the impact of
other birders reporting things on this listserv and the access of valuable
tools such as eBird. 

Prior to 2009, I was a birder for eight years, but it wasn’t a regular
hobby for me.  2009 was when I really get interested in birding
constantly, and I thought big years were a cool thing to do with the more
I met birders out in the field and read about people participating in
them.  In a fall trip in November last year to Sweetwater Wetlands, Justin
Jones and I birded with Mark Stevenson and Molly Pollock for the first
time, where Mark told us about an Arizona Big Year that he and Molly did,
which reached  401 species.  I was amazed at what he said, and at the
beginning of 2010 I decided to shoot for an Arizona Big Year, but I
thought 360 would be the most reasonable goal for me to shoot for,
especially with working full time.  I soon realized I couldn’t afford to
chase birds around the state like I was wanting to.  But around March I
was seeing a nice amount of good birds around Maricopa County and I read
in Janet Witzeman’s classic book, The Birds of Maricopa County and
Phoenix, Arizona about a Big Year List she and seven other birders worked
on in 1974 in Maricopa County.  I asked Janet more about this amazing
year, and she sent me a copy of The Roadrunner newsletter from 1975 that
included a well written article by Janet herself that explained the year
they worked hard for, the Maricopa County list of 1974.  The eight
birders, Janet Witzeman, Scott Terrill, Bix Demaree, Helen Longstreth, Bob
Norton, Bob Bradley, Zona Brighton, and Gene Bauer accomplished incredible
things in their heavy pursuit of birds around the county, and Scott
Terrill finished the year with the most birds in the county that year with
284 species, 315 were combined among everyone.  This number impressed me,
especially since internet wasn’t an option back in 1974.  They had to
communicate by phone, and I was blown away by this year list I was reading
about that Janet wrote.  I was so blown away and impressed by it that I
decided in mid-March to turn my Arizona Big Year into a Maricopa County
Big Year.  I soon met Jim Kopitzke, who I birded with the most this year,
and he listened to my ideas about this big year from the start.  Jim and I
covered nearly every part of the county together throughout this year, and
what fun it was to explore! We both thought 284 wouldn’t be reachable when
I started, but with the power of the  listserv and the many birders
reported I soon realized how possible anything was.  I was happy with my
county list at the time I decided to do the Maricopa County big year in
March, and one of the birds included the first county record of Green
Kingfisher.  From here on it was about strategy and making a list of what
I needed, and trying to plan accurate trips at the right time of the year
to attempt at getting certain birds.  Maricopa County has around 230-240
regularly occuring birds annually most years, and finding most of these
birds was key, despite the fact I missed a few of them.

The only way that 304 species for was possible for me in Maricopa County
this year was made possible by the help of others finding things and
reading past posts to get ideas of where to look for the harder species
and what time of year they may be present.  Reading past posts from Slate
Creek Divide and Mount Ord from Troy Corman and Steve Ganley helped a lot
and gave me a good idea of what to possibly expect as far as the high
elevation birds went throughout the years when a lot of those birds may be
very irregular.  Out of the 304 species, I either found or co-found 273 of
them myself.  31 species came from chasing birds that others found and
reported either on the listserv or on eBird, and sometimes by friends
calling and sending me text messages.  Another key thing to doing a big
year is birding regularly in key habitats or locations that are more
likely to produce a species in one particular location or spot, where that
habitat is scarce in other parts of the county.  I thought of these places
as “wildcard” spots for the year, which in Maricopa County, I came up with
five of them: Slate Creek Divide, Mount Ord, Rousseau Sod Farms, Glendale
Recharge Ponds, and the Agua Fria River Bed.  34 species in the county
were not seen outside of these locations for me during the year.  Mount
Ord and Slate Creek Divide carry the high elevation species, the Rousseau
Sod Farms offer perfect habitat for longspurs which are usually harder to
find elsewhere, and the Glendale Recharge Ponds and nearby Agua Fria
Riverbed offer shorebird habitat better than anywhere else in the county,
and its one of the best in the state.  Maricopa County is also a very
large county with a lot of different habitats to support a nice variety of
bird species.  This primarily thought of county as “desert only” actually
has a little bit of everything, which makes a big year in a county like
this extra fun.  Maricopa is actually the 15th largest county in the U.S.
by area, and the 5th largest in Arizona (Coconino, Mohave, Apache, and
Navajo are larger).  Habitats range from the hottest deserts to forested
mountains that reach above 7000 feet.

There were a few areas that I wasn’t able to cover like I wished this
year, but perhaps next year I can work towards those spots.  Up at Slate
Creek Divide, the habitat is much better for the forest dwelling owls,
which Steve and Troy have had Spotted and Saw-whet Owls before, as well as
Mexican Whip-poor-will.  I assume Flammulated is up there too, and owling
at night at Slate Creek several times during the year will hopefully turn
up those species.  There is also Four Peaks, another nice forested area in
Maricopa County that has had Wild Turkey in the past.  I have never made
it up to Four Peaks.  Last, the very southwest part of the county has
potential, but yet is a very dangerous area.  In this area is the Sand
Tank and Sauceda Mountains which are southeast of Gila Bend.  Janet’s book
mentions past sightings of Varied Bunting and Rufous-winged Sparrow in
this area, and hopefully somehow I can explore it, I love the potential it
probably has.  On the ebird list for Maricopa County, John Arnett reported
seven Varied Buntings from that general area in June.

SUMMARY: The rest of this report will summarize the highlights of what I
saw in Maricopa County month-by-month.

The first day I was able to go birding this year was January 2nd.  On my
way into the Glendale Recharge Ponds, my very first bird of the year was a
fence-perched LOGGERHEAD SHRIKE.  Other notable birds on this first day
included both WESTERN and MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRDS side-by side at Rousseau Sod
Farms and both ROSS’S and SNOW GEESE side-by-side at McCormick Lake in
Scottsdale.  On January 3rd, a trip to Gilbert Water Ranch produced a huge
flock of LAWRENCE’S GOLDFINCHES that provided many birders with amazing
looks for an extended period of time.  My first lifer of 2010 came from a
sighting of NORTHERN PARULA that was found Kurt Radamaker behind Buster’s
Restaurant in Scottsdale on January 5th, where a BROWN CREEPER was also
present.  Ironically, the following day at Tres Rios, I found my own
Northern Parula.  On January 8th, I made my first ever trip to the Salt
River sites north of Mesa, where I got to see a previously reported COMMON
LOON at Granite Reef that was found by Marcus Watson, and also a few
GOLDEN-CROWNED KINGLETS that were found by Steve Ganley.  On January 13th,
I made another productive stop at the Salt River, where a lot of
excitement happened at Butcher Jones Recreation Site and Sahuaro Lake.  I
got treated to seeing a NORTHERN BEARDLESS-TYRANNULET that was also found
by Steve Ganley.  While watching the Tyrannulet, my lifer SWAMP SPARROW
flew in calling.  Walking up Sahuaro Lake minutes later, I found a female
GREATER SCAUP.  On January 19th at Rio Salado, I got lucky to find a
single LARK BUNTING with a mixed flock of sparrows, the only one I saw in
the county this year.  137 species recorded in Maricopa in the month of

On February 5th, I found a high amount of HORNED GREBES numbering five
individual birds on Sahuaro Lake.  That same day, I refound a EURASIAN
WIGEON I saw at a Scottsdale Pond in December 2009.  On February 11th, I
got to see several AMERICAN GOLDFINCHES at Gilbert Water Ranch found by
Jim Kopitzke and an early WILSON’S WARBLER at Rio Salado.  On February
14th, I got to see a CACKLING GOOSE at McCormick Lake in Scottsdale which
was likely the same one reported by Troy Corman several days before.  A
trip to Seven Springs on February 25th gave me higher elevation firsts
BLACK-AND-WHITE WARBLER was seen during this month at Rio Salado, and the
first time I got to see it was February 26th.  137 Species recorded in
Maricopa in the month of February, 159 for the year. 

March began with an incredible highlight and actually my favorite sighting
of all of this year, a GREEN KINGFISHER which was found by Dominic Sherony
at the Hassayampa River Preserve.  Magill Weber reported the bird and many
birders made the trip down the same day, which was Feb 27th on the
original discovery date.  That Kingfisher was amazing, a first Maricopa
County Record.  A week after I saw the Kingfisher for the first time, I
went back to Hassayampa again on March 10th, where I observed a RED-
SHOULDERED HAWK with Jim Kopitzke and Jay Miller, which was reported by
Melanie Herring.  My friend Joe Phillips showed me a few LONG-EARED OWLS
in a location at the Phoenix Mountains Preserve on March 12th.  On a trip
to Morgan City Wash with Troy Corman on March 13th, I got my first WESTERN-
SCREECH OWL of the year as well as an early PACIFIC-SLOPE FLYCATCHER. 
During a trip to Seven Springs on March 19th, I found a GOLDEN-CROWNED
SPARROW, which was an amazing surprise, as well as my first COMMON BLACK
and ZONE-TAILED HAWKS for the year.  155 Species recorded in Maricopa in
the month of March, 180 for the year.

On April 1st, I took a drive after work to Lake Pleasant looking for a
FRANKLIN’S GULL that was found by Pat Goltz, in which I ended up with two
of them.  I also found a bizzare washed out MARBLED GODWIT that I thought
was a Bar-tailed Godwit at first.  April Fools   A night owling trip to
Sunflower on April 5th with Magill Weber and Moe Bell produced an ELF OWL
and several COMMON POORWILLS.  In the middle of the month I made my first
trip to Mount Ord for a camping trip April 13th-14th where I got many good
high elevation species for the county that included GOLDEN EAGLE, HAIRY
PAINTED REDSTARTS, and HEPATIC TANAGERS (Which Mount Ord had a noteworthy
population of this species this year).  On April 19th I got my first
VIRGINIA and CLAPPER RAILS for the year in the Arlington Wildlife Area, as
well as LE CONTE’S THRASHER at the Thrasher site.  Another camping trip to
Mount Ord April 24-25th produced a LEWIS’S WOODPECKER, TOWNSEND’S WARBLER,
OWLS.  The following day on April 26th at the Glendale Recharge Ponds, I
got extremely lucky and found an adult WESTERN GULL, which is the 3rd
potential state record.  The bird was present only that evening and was
never seen again.  A visit to Hassayampa River Preserve on the April 30th
gave me my lifer INDIGO BUNTING as well as my first GRAY HAWK for the
year, followed by a SEMIPALMATED PLOVER later in the day at Glendale
Recharge Ponds.  181 species recorded in April in Maricopa, 229 for the

On May 6th, my first great highlight of the month was an adult-plumaged
BLACK-BELLIED PLOVER at the Glendale Recharge Ponds.  The same day also
gave me my first BARN OWL and BLUE GROSBEAK of the year at the Baseline
and Meridian Wildlife Area.  Jim Kopitzke then found a NORTHERN
WATERTHRUSH at Mesquite Wash which stuck around until May 10th and perched
up and sang for my video camera.  That same day I went up to Mount Ord and
saw my county first BAND-TAILED PIGEON.  On May 13th, I found a SANDERLING
at the Agua Fria Riverbed, which was a nice surprise.  John Saba then
reported an AMERICAN BITTERN at the Gilbert Water Ranch which was present
when I tried for it on May 15th, in which a CALIFORNIA GULL also made an
appearance.  Another camping trip up to Mount Ord that evening, this time
with Jim Kopitzke, we had a PINE SISKIN, a county bird for both of us. 
Returning from Mount Ord the following day on the 16th, I went to the Agua
Fria River Bed to see LEAST and FORSTER’S TERNS side-by-side.  On the
21st, I got two lifers, the first was a TROPICAL KINGBIRD as Hassayampa
River Preserve that was found by Barb Meding, and a RED-NECKED PHALAROPE
at the Glendale Recharge Ponds that was found by Melanie Herring.  On May
30th, John Saba came down from Tucson to the Agua Fria and discovered an
incredible ELEGANT TERN which stayed a few days, going back and fourth
from the riverbed to the Glendale Recharge Ponds.  179 species recorded in
May in Maricopa, 248 for the year.

A beautiful RED PHALAROPE found on May 31st by Bob Witzeman at the Higley
Road Ponds in Gilbert was present for me and many other birders the
following day on June 1st.  One the 3rd, Justin Jones and I explored the
Agua Fria Riverbed, where we found an AMERICAN HERRING GULL.  A trip out
to the thrasher spot on June 11th with Jim Kopitzke gave me my first
BENDIRE’S THRASHER of the year, and on our way back we saw  two BLACK
TERNS at the Agua Fria Riverbed.  On the 15th, I found my first COMMON
GROUND-DOVES of the year at Baseline and Meridian Wildlife Area and I was
also very shocked to find a CAVE SWALLOW at the Wildlife area shortly
after the doves among thousands of Cliff Swallows.  Sadly, I couldn’t get
a picture of the bird.  On the 21st, a trip to Mesquite Wash gave me
excellent views of my year’s first YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO, which was the
first time I saw one after hearing them many times.  An incredible bird! 
121 species recorded in June in Maricopa, 255 for the year.

July was a hard month for the most part.  I added only one bird that
month, a WILLOW FLYCATCHER at the Hassayampa River Preserve on the 2nd. 
Several days later, I hurt my eye and had an ulcer in my cornia, which
kept me down for awhile, but thankfully the injury healed perfectly.  I
spent the last week of July in Greer in Apache County.  97 species
recorded in July in Maricopa, 256 for the year.

August was a strong month of the birding year.  My first action came on
August 9th when I made a trip up to Slate Creek Divide.  I went over 30
days without adding anything new to my county year list, this day changed
my luck around.  Heading down a drainage Jim Kopitzke and I explored prior
figured they were most likely breeding.  When Jim came back down the
drainage a few days later with me, we saw most of the same birds and a lot
more of the Dusky-capped Flycatchers, which Jim spied one of them feeding
a youngster   Slate Creek Divide is so similiar to our Southeastern
Arizona canyons, and hopefully it can be covered a lot in 2011   A
TRICOLORED HERON was then discovered by Stig Tjotta at the El Rio Research
Center in southwest Phoenix on August 14th, which I got to see several
times as this bird stayed a long time.  The next few highlights came from
the Glendale Recharge Ponds, a SEMIPALMATED SANDPIPER on the 18th, and a
BAIRD’S SANDPIPER on the 20th.  A trip to Mount Ord on the 26th gave me my
first PYGMY NUTHATCH for Maricopa.  On August 30th, I found my first of
many NASHVILLE WARBLERS during the fall migration.  143 species recorded
in August in Maricopa, 266 for the year. 

My first birding in September came on the 4th at Granite Reef Recreation
Area at the Salt River, which I birded with Jim Kopitzke.  Jim and I found
two unexpected birds at the site, a male WOOD DUCK and a very lost and out
of place juvenille NORTHERN GOSHAWK, which was a lucky find, and we both
had time to carefully study this bird in the field.  My first AMERICAN
WHITE PELICAN of the year came at the Agua Fria on the 7th.  On the 10th,
I found an adult SABINE’S GULL at Saguaro Lake, which was the first of 3
Sabine’s (the latter two juveniles) that I found in the county in less
than two weeks).  On the 12th, I added two shorebirds at the Recharge
Ponds, PECTORAL and STILT SANDPIPERS.  Jim Kopitzke and I were in the Gila
Bend area on the 14th, in which we got extremely lucky and found a young
EASTERN KINGBIRD which possibly could’ve been a same bird that Mark
Stevenson and Molly Pollack found about 8 miles east of our spot 8 days
before.  On the 17th, Melanie Herring texted me about a SNOWY PLOVER at
the Glendale Recharge Ponds, which I was able to pick the small bird out
with patient scanning.  A PROTHONOTARY WARBLER was then found by Nick
Komar, a visiting birder from Colorado on the 19th at Gilbert Water Ranch,
which I refound on the opposite end of which it was reported.  Ironically,
a week later at Morgan City Wash with Troy Corman, Troy spied my second
Prothonotary in a week.  On the 25th, a BROWN PELICAN flew my way at Tres
Rios Wetlands.  170 species recorded in Maricopa in September, 276 for the

An AMERICAN REDSTART that I came across at Mesquite Wash led off the month
of October on the 1st.  On the 7th, a trip to Box Bar recreation site with
Jim Kopitzke gave us an adult male BROAD-BILLED HUMMINGBIRD which we
detected by it’s call note.  Minutes later, a probable Broad-winged Hawk
gave us an undefining look and never returned.  My first trip of the fall
to the Rousseau Sod Farms on the 13th gave me several EASTERN
MEADOWLARKS.  On the 15th, Melanie Herring reported a CASPIAN TERN at the
new Tres Rios Project.  I got a distant but satisfying look after an hours
worth of scanning later that evening.   On the 22nd, I made a trip to Gila
Bend and Arlington where I got three new year birds, a rare REDDISH EGRET
along Painted Rock Dam Road found a week earlier by Kurt and Cindy
Radamaker, and also many SANDHILL CRANES and several SAGE SPARROWS.   On
the 26th, I got to see a PALM WARBLER at Indian Bend Wash that was found
by Matthew Toomey two nights before.  I spent 3 hours trying for this
warbler the day before I saw it, and I struck out.  When I tried the
second time, Jim Kopitzke pointed it out to me within a minute.  At the
Rousseau Sod Farms I saw my first ever longspur in a CHESTNUT-SIDED
LONGSPUR on the 29th, and this bird flew right to me.  166 species
recorded in October in Maricopa, 285 for the year. 

On November 1st, I successfully chased two RUDDY GROUND-DOVES that were
reported by Pete Moulton the day before, my first ever Ruddy.  On the 7th,
I had an incredibly lucky day with three lifebirds, which on this day my
luck for the year really went skyward and was the turning point if there
would be one that helped me reach 300.  Three different Longspur species
were reported by James McKay the night before, two of them I needed.  I
got out there early and found the McCOWN’S LONGSPURS rather easily, and
while I was looking at a McCowns, I spied a rare SPRAGUE’S PIPIT lurking
in the grass behind it, which was one of my favorite birds this year.  I
had to leave shortly after, but returned in the afternoon with Brendon
Grice, David Vander Pluym, and Lauren Harter.  Lauren and David were able
to get me on the last bird I needed at the sod farms, the LAPLAND
LONGSPUR.  The following day on the 8th, I met Lauren Harter and David
Vander Pluym at Glendale Recharge Ponds were I added both HOODED and RED-
BREASTED MERGANSERS to my year list.  David then spied a juvenille
AMERICAN HERRING GULL.  The Glendale Recharge Ponds continued to produce
incredible birds, an amazing adult male BLACK SCOTER on the 14th that was
found by Brian Walsh, my year’s first BONAPARTE’S GULL on the 17th, and
then a hatch-year ROSEATE SPOONBILL found by Ken Bielek on the 19th.  The
Scoter and Spoonbill stayed at the Glendale Ponds for several days each,
and the Spoonbill has visited almost every other pond in west Phoenix
since then.  154 species recorded in November in Maricopa, 294 for the

After going two weeks without adding a bird, Gary Nunn discovered
Arizona’s bird of the year at Gilbert Water Ranch, the famous BAIKAL TEAL,
AZ’s first potential record.  Gary found the bird on the 2nd, and I chased
it along with everyone else in Arizona on the 3rd.  What a day that was! 
Hopefully the record will be accepted.  Paul Lehman then discovered a
WHITE-WINGED SCOTER on the 4th at the Gila Bend Sewage Ponds as he was
chasing the teal.  The bird was still present when I arrived at the spot
on the 6th.  An EASTERN PHOEBE was then reported by Melanie Herring and
Melissa Oehler at the Hassayampa River Preserve that was banded.  I tried
for the phoebe on the 8th, and was able to find it with the help of
Christina Smith.  On the 13th, a lucky visit to Rio Salado gave me a
CHESTNUT-SIDED WARBLER, which is still present at the same spot.  I
decided to join Justin Jones and Troy Corman on the Salt River CBC on the
14th after they had seen a YELLOW-BELLIED SAPSUCKER a few days earlier
while scouting.  Justin quickly spied the Sapsucker, and minutes later,
Troy pointed out a calling PACIFIC WREN that we heard only, but it was
still awesome.  The Pacific Wren was my 300th bird of the big year in
Maricopa!  On the 17th, I finally got to see a BROWN THRASHER found by
Frank Insana, that was present at the Desert Botanical Gardens for over a
month.  Melanie Herring gave me three free passes to the gardens, and on
my last pass and third try, I got amazing looks at the bird.  On the 18th,
I chased AMERICAN CROWS that were also found on the Salt River CBC, in
which I heard them calling several times among the many Ravens.  I can’t
believe I chased a Crow!  On the 19th, I made an afternoon trip to the
Arlington area and saw my first ever and overdue lifer WHITE-TAILED
KITES.  I found a pair of them hovering over a field, and ironically on my
way out of the valley, a third one flew directly over my truck.  On my
last birding outing of the year with my cousin Jimmy Crosser on the 30th,
I heard an EASTERN WINTER WREN calling in the thick brush at Granite Reef
Recreation Area on the Salt River to close out my big year, an excellent
way to end things.  162 species recorded in Maricopa in December, 304 for
the year’s total. 

In conclusion, the year is finally over and I am exhausted and tired, but
a happy birder with what I was able to see and find in the county this
year.  I can’t do any birding on the 31st due to family plans that don’t
involve birding.  My truck has been though a lot of mileage and I am
scared to even know how much I really drove, so I will never add up that
total!  I missed two easier birds this year, Long-billed Curlew and Vaux’s
Swift, which I still don’t understand why I missed them.  I also don’t
count Peach-faced Lovebird on this list or on any of the month totals,
because it has not been officially accepted on the ABA checklist.  Besides
Maricopa, I had plenty of birding time outside of the county with trips to
southeast Arizona and the White Mountains in Apache County.  I came up
with 344 species for the year in the state, not too far off of my original
goal of 360 for the state year I originally planned :) I hope this report
was exciting to all of you and if you read it, I really appreciate it. 
Thanks to all of you who helped me find these birds!  Hopefully county big
years will someday become a popular thing here in Arizona, because it is
great fun and a challenging rewarding endeavor, I promise that.  So if you
haven’t made plans for a birding goal in the year of 2011, shoot for a big
year in your home county!

God Bless all of you and have a Happy New Year and Good Birding for 2011
and beyond to come.

Tommy DeBardeleben (Glendale, Arizona) 

Birding in Maricopa County

An online guide to the birds and birding locations of Maricopa County


Birding in Greenlee County

An online guide to Greenlee County Birding


Birding in Arizona's White Mountains

An online guide to Birding in Arizona's White Mountains