A Grand New Year

When I shared my traditional annual wrap-up post in the final days of December 2021, I did so knowing that I wasn’t quite done with birding adventures for the year. For the first time since I started seriously year listing in 2016, I had New Year’s Day plans that didn’t include a visit to Jones Beach! This holiday season, I had the honor of joining Jacqi and a few of her old college buddies for several days of celebration in Arizona. I hadn’t visited the southwestern state since my solo trip in the summer of 2018, so I was grateful for the opportunity to revisit this corner of the country. This vacation was predominantly focused on festivities and friendship, but the itinerary nevertheless featured some wonderful opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors. 

After an overnight flight from NYC, Jacqi and I arrived in Phoenix early in the morning. After checking into our hotel, we headed over to our friend Jake’s place, where Vince, Kevin, and Kristen were already waiting for us. We set off on a tour of the city, including a visit to the charming Phoenix Art Museum. Even while traveling around town, I kept my eyes peeled for local specialty birds. These observations included a heard-only flyby of a Rosy-faced Lovebird, an introduced species that I was hoping to secure as a lifer. Knowing that my East Coast internal clock would likely wake me up long before the rest of the crew, I made plans to visit the renowned Desert Botanical Gardens early one morning. Simply being out in this iconic habitat again was a genuine pleasure, further enhanced by a series of reunions with the Sonoran Desert’s remarkable wildlife.

I arrived at the gardens just after sunrise, quickly finding a number of familiar feathered faces that I haven’t seen in years. Verdins chipped and chattered as they flitted through the vegetation, and the songs of Cactus Wrens and Curve-billed Thrashers rang out all around me. I encountered several coveys of Gambel’s Quail, and I enjoyed good looks at Gilded Flickers and Gila Woodpeckers. The biggest surprise of the morning was a young Broad-billed Hummingbird, a known wintering individual that I had not been aware of. It’s always fun to stumble onto a continuing rarity on your own, even if it has already been documented by the local community!

I rejoined the rest of the group for brunch, and soon thereafter we were on our way north. After a long drive through scenic hills, valleys, and forests, we arrived at Grand Canyon Village just in time for sunset. Part of the impetus for planning this trip was the chance to spend New Year’s Eve at the Canyon itself, allowing us to watch the first sunrise of 2022 against one of the most spectacular natural backdrops in the entire world. I’ve only been to Grand Canyon National Park once previously, when I visited the North Rim with my family in the summer of 2005. After 16 years away, the views were every bit as awe-inspiring as I remembered. I also greatly appreciated the opportunity to observe this geological marvel from a different vantage point along the South Rim.

After a good night’s sleep, I was eager to get out and explore the trails surrounding the lodges. News from back home reported that the famous Steller’s Sea-Eagle roaming the Northeast had resurfaced in Maine as soon as I was no longer within chasing distance. It was admittedly difficult not to be distracted by the lifelong dream bird just out of reach at the other end of the continent, but this individual had already been taunting and tantalizing me for the better part of the year. I resolved myself to finish that story another day and not let it divert attention from my limited time at the Grand Canyon. Thankfully, it’s easy to enjoy yourself when you’re in such an incredible setting. I was quickly reunited with Mountain Chickadees, Pygmy Nuthatches, Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jays, and Western Bluebirds. Though I sadly couldn’t find any of the local California Condors, which are less frequently encountered at the South Rim in winter, I did finally get to add Juniper Titmouse to my life list. This was my last completely new bird species of 2021, bringing my lifelong global total to 1,230. Despite their plain plumage, these crested cuties have all the personality typical of the parid family. The first pair I encountered was observed visiting a food cache in the snow-filled fork of a tree, pulling a snack out of the freezer and fluttering away to feast in peace. Adorable AND resourceful!

We closed out the Old Year with a delicious meal at El Tovar Hotel and a proper party back in our rooms at the Kachina Lodge. From start to finish, it was a truly fantastic night with wonderful people. After toasting to the arrival of midnight, I headed to bed wondering what my first bird of 2022 would be. Like many birders, I’m a touch superstitious about the auspices of the #1 bird on any given year list. 2019, one of the most enjoyable and eventful years of my life so far, began with a singing Northern Saw-whet Owl. The insanity of 2020, on the other hand, kicked off with some flyover Canada Geese startled by fireworks. This year, I was hoping for a quality species to start the new list on the right foot. Based on my location, I had a pretty good idea about which bird it would be, and my prediction turned out to be accurate. Upon stepping out into the predawn cold on January 1st, 2022, I immediately spotted a Common Raven flying over the parking lot. These clever corvids have long ranked among my favorite species, so I was quite pleased for them to secure their spot as the first bird of the new year. Their adaptable and brazen behavior makes them consummate survivors, as evidenced by their abundance at the Grand Canyon despite the harsh winter conditions. Whether they’re engaging in midair acrobatic performances or ransacking an unattended pickup truck, ravens are perpetually entertaining and impressive birds.

The highly-anticipated first sunrise of 2022 also lived up to our collective hype. Watching color gradually return to the landscape was well-worth the extended wait in the frigid wind. It’s hard to imagine a more impressive location to welcome the New Year.

When the rest of the party returned to the hotel to warm up, I set out for the trails to continue building my 2022 year list. Due to the limited selection of wintering species present at the Canyon, the total was slow to grow, but every species I found was a quality addition. The day’s highlight, however, came early in my search and caught me completely off-guard. While trying to get the attention of a small flock of chickadees and nuthatches, I absentmindedly whistled a few toots in imitation of a pygmy-owl just as I might mimic a screech-owl or Saw-whet back home. A few moments later, I was stunned to hear a short response from the forest. Although these tiny raptors are resident in the region and frequently active diurnally, they can be exceedingly secretive and difficult to pin down. I wasn’t even able to get a visual on the bird despite hearing it close by, but I was thrilled to add Northern Pygmy-Owl as the 5th species on my year list, before I even logged sparrows, pigeons, or starlings! On the non-avian front, I also discovered a Mountain Cottontail and a Cliff Chipmunk before we had to start back towards Phoenix. We made one last stop at the visitor center to savor the views from scenic Mather Point, then bid the Grand Canyon farewell and headed off to the south. I’m already looking forward to my next visit!

The remainder of the trip was spent hanging around Phoenix with our friends. As an expert host, Jake picked out a variety of exceptional restaurants and entertainment options to keep us occupied throughout the vacation. I was thrilled to partake in my first karaoke experience since late 2019, and the bar we visited was so welcoming and fun that it made me nostalgic for my beloved Way Station. Jacqi and I checked out a park across the street from one of our brunch venues so we could finally get a visual on the local Rosy-faced Lovebirds, finding dozens of the pint-sized parrots feeding on the lawns. The whole squad then headed out to the explore the Phoenix Zoo together. In addition to the myriad captive creatures, I was lucky enough to document a number of noteworthy wild birds. Notable sightings included White-throated Swift, Neotropic Cormorant, and Prairie Falcon, a species I hadn’t observed since my barely-remembered lifer encounter in 2003. After nearly 2 decades since my first and only sighting, it almost felt like an all-new bird.

Early on in my trip, I received a message from fellow Redpoller Jon Mann, who had recognized my name from the eBird checklists I was submitting around town. He gave me a number of great advice about where to search for specific target species, including details about a reliable nearby site for the 2022 ABA Bird of the Year: Burrowing Owl. I was well aware that this could be my best chance to observe this marvelously unique species in the wild during its designated year, and I couldn’t resist following up on this tip. Jacqi was happy to take a detour to seek out these lovable birds, and it didn’t take us long to find one standing post outside the entrance to its subterranean roost. We were fortunate to spend some quality time with the owl, and we also heard a Coyote howling and spotted it slinking through the fields in the distance. Definitely a worthwhile sidetrip!

I spent my final morning in Arizona along the banks of Rio Salado, a natural restoration area with a mix of desert and riparian habitat. This last ditch attempt to find a Greater Roadrunner, which I haven’t seen in years, sadly came up short. On the other hand, I did successfully connect with a few more southwestern specialties, including Gray Hawk, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, and Abert’s Towhee. Once we finished sorting out our flight delays and gathering up our gear, it was finally time to begin the journey home. It was difficult to say goodbye to Arizona, and even harder to bid farewell to Jake, Vince, Kristen, and Kevin after such an awesome vacation. I had an absolute blast celebrating New Year’s with this crazy cast of characters, and I’m already looking forward to seeing what the arrival of 2023 might bring with it! Until then, there’s a whole new year of adventures and exploration awaiting! From where I’m standing, 2022 is off to a fantastic start so far. Here’s to hoping the coming months are equally successful. Happy New Year, everybody!