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Hurricane Newton: tubenoses in the desert

Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel at Patagonia Lake State Park. Photo by Chris McCreedy/Macaulay Library.

For some birders who live inland, the August-October period often brings around a strange yearning: the want for massive, untamed hurricanes. These enormous storms can bring incredibly rare birds; once-in-a-lifetime birding events that can include species that you may normally have to go dozens or hundreds of miles offshore to see. Earlier this month, Arizona realized this hurricane dream, giving some lucky birders a pelagic trip more than 100 miles from the sea, in the heart of the Sonoran Desert. We’re excited to share four first-hand accounts of birding in Newton‘s aftermath—including tales of Pterodroma petrels over yards, storm-petrels in highway rest areas, and much more. Even the normally delightful waste treatment plants have been elevated to a new level of fun. Thanks to Brian Gibbons, Laurens Halsey, Lauren Harter, Chris McCreedy, and David Vander Pluym for these tales of birding excitement, great photos, and fantastically documented records. We hope you enjoy reading their stories as much as we do.

Birding Hurricane Newton
by Brian Gibbons, Laurens Halsey, Lauren Harter, Chris McCreedy, and David Vander Pluym

Hurricane Newton formed roughly 220 mi southwest of Manzanillo, Colima, Mexico on 4 Sep 2016 and reached Arizona on 7 Sep 2016, bringing with it several notable species of bird, including three species new to Arizona and one even new to the USA (and the ABA area)!

This storm officially reached hurricane strength winds late on 5 Sep 2016 and reached peak intensity with wind speeds of 90 mph shortly before making landfall at Cabo San Lucas, Baja California Sur. The storm then moved north—crossing the Gulf of California—with its eyewall falling apart and weakening to a tropical storm before making a second landfall near Bahia Kino, Sonora. Newton crossed into Arizona still at tropical storm strength during early afternoon on 7 Sep but rapidly weakened to a tropical depression before reaching Tucson. The center of the “post cyclone” low passed north along the I-19 corridor before turning east toward Vail.

Thanks to Andrew Core for this excellent map depicting Newton's track and rarities. See the interactive map here.

Thanks to Andrew Core for this excellent map depicting Newton’s track and rarities. See the interactive map here.

Despite the weakened state of the storm, Newton still brought 5 species of tubenoses (e.g., petrels, shearwaters, storm-petrels) to Arizona. This was an impressive total for this storm, since these species we thought were usually associated with stronger storms—clearly we have a lot to learn about how hurricanes affect birds in our area!  [Team eBird note: storms in the eastern USA often carry tubenoses inland if they are still of tropical storm strength once they head inland and may carry storm-petrels, Pterodroma, and tropical terns with the storm even after weakening to a tropical depression. Sustained wind and precipitation do seem to be critical to transporting pelagic species well inland, with species dropping out primarily east of the storm’s center all along its path.]

There have been three previous tropical storms which brought tubenoses to Arizona: Kathleen (1976) brought 2 Least Storm-Petrels to Lake Mohave (and at least a thousand to the Salton Sea); Lester (1992) brought a single Least Storm-Petrel to Patagonia Lake; and the most well-known Nora (1997) brought 4 species of tubenoses to Lake Havasu. For more information on the last tropical storm to bring tubenoses to Arizona, Nora, see here.

The final update for Post-Tropical Cyclone Newton from the National Hurricane Center was at 2PM Arizona time. At this time the center of the storm was reported to be located over southeastern Arizona near latitude 31.6N, longitude 111.2W, moving north-northeast near 18 mph (30 km/h).  This location, almost exactly midway between Tubac and Arivaca, is 12.5 miles southwest of the Amado WTP, 21 miles west-northwest of Patagonia Lake, and approximately 50 miles southwest of east Tucson.

The following are four personal accounts of the exceptional pelagic fallout from Newton.

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Chapter 1

Chris McCreedy

I headed to Patagonia Lake on 7 Sep after watching Newton track north for the past three days. I was excited for the storm’s arrival.  I stopped at the Amado Waste Treatment Plant around noon, in moderate rain. There were only few birds there, just a handful of swallows and a group of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks on the infrastructure in the middle of the pond. I was somewhat worried, because the storm had taken a more eastern track than I had hoped, and the strongest southerly winds seemed to be more toward Sonoita. I had strongly considered bailing on the Santa Cruz Valley to cut off the storm at Willcox, and it seemed like I had made the wrong decision. But I continued to Patagonia Lake and immediately checked out the spillway at the west end of the reservoir. I found only Spotted Sandpipers and Killdeer, and there was hardly anything on the lake. The rain had abated somewhat by then, and I knew from watching weather services on the web that the storm had now moved north.

I was now getting quite worried that I had missed everything, but around 13:40 I scoped a storm-petrel across the lake.  It was much smaller than the nearby coots, brown with a knobby, dovelike head, and it held a long primary projection with its wings almost appearing to cross behind its back. I had of course specifically been hoping to find a storm-petrel, so I immediately feared that I was seeing only flotsam, or a Black Tern. I stayed with it and realized I indeed had one, texted my buddy Sean and set about trying to figure out how I could get closer to it. It slowly drifted toward the center of Patagonia Lake, and I could make out that it was brown, and a white rump was visible under its generally folded wings.  I realized that I would never be able to get close enough to it to identify it, and I began to try to figure out how to stake it out if it drifted across the lake to the south side. I drove back to park HQ to rent a boat, but the park staff notified me that the park likely didn’t rent boats during tropical storms.

Not your everyday sight on an Arizona lake—Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel!

Arizona’s first state record of Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel! Photo by Chris McCreedy/Macaulay Library.

I drove back to the spillway, and two birders had just arrived. I got them on a storm-petrel hovering in the middle of the lake and then I saw another storm-petrel loafing in the water only 10-20 m from the south shore: the first bird had drifted across the lake. I took many photographs while surrounded by Rufous-crowned Sparrows and a Black-capped Gnatcatcher. I decided to check the boat launch at the eastern end of the reservoir and saw a storm-petrel to the east and then another dabbing only ten feet from shore. It was now raining again and so I stood under a cottonwood tree and just waited and shot photographs as various birds cruised into view. At this point I had the two birds at the spillway, each with white rumps, and two birds at the beach, also with white rumps. I began panning east and now saw two storm-petrels flying around at the east end of the lake, bringing my total to five if it could be assumed that the two spillway birds were separate than these three (the spillway at the west end is a fair distance from the beach). Soon after this I observed now five birds from the beach eastward, all simultaneously. If the spillway birds were different that made for seven! All of the white-rumped storm-petrels in my photographs have been identified as Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels (first AZ record) and the dark-rumped bird as a Least Storm-Petrel, Santa Cruz County’s second record and first since Hurricane Lester in 1992. See the full checklist here.

Least Storm-Petrel—not a bird often photographed with cattails in the background.

Least Storm-Petrel—not a bird often photographed with cattails in the background. Photo by Chris McCreedy/Macaulay Library.

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Chapter 2

Laurens Halsey

The first public report of fallout of truly pelagic species from this tropical storm was from Richard Wilt. He reported a storm-petrel with a white rump at the Amado WTP pond at 2:20PM to the Tucson RBA. Andrew Core immediately posted this report to the AZ/NM listserve and the Arizona Birding Facebook Group.

Earlier in the day I had checked the Amado WTP as well as a number of small golf course ponds in Green Valley for any storm-driven birds. I was planning to repeat my search later in the day. Upon seeing the message from Andrew I hastened my return. I arrived at the Amado WTP just before 3pm and immediately found three storm-petrels with white-rumps. Eventually a dark-rumped storm-petrel was seen and joined company with the others. Between photographing and studying the storm-petrels I conducted quick scans of the sky. On one of my scans I detected a larger bird, a shearwater, coming in from the south. After sixty plus photos and less than a minute the shearwater disappeared quickly to the west, it was not observed with binoculars. I reported the observations thus far to the email listserve, an unidentified shearwater and at least two species of storm-petrels. I was shaking with excitement.

Wedge-tailed Shearwater, flying over Amado WTP in Arizona. More like a "shearsand." Photo by Laurens Halsey/Macaulay Library.

Wedge-tailed Shearwater, the tremor-inducing bird, over Amado WTP in Arizona. Photo by Laurens Halsey/Macaulay Library.

Other birders began to appear and the ID discussions concentrated to the white-rumped storm-petrels, which we thought were one of the recently split-up Leach’s-type (i.e., Leach’s Storm-Petrel Oceanodroma leucorhoa, Townsend’s Storm-Petrel O. socorroensis, and Ainley’s Strom-Petrel O. cheimonestes, which were part of splits adopted in August 2016). Experience with storm-petrels was lacking amongst the group (we are desert dwellers) though we were in communications with some very experienced birders. The all-dark storm-petrel was identified as a Least Storm-Petrel based on wedge-shaped tail. Word reached us that other white-rumped storm-petrels being seen at Patagonia Lake were possibly Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel, totally unexpected. In the end, five storm-petrels could be confirmed on the Amado Pond—all five in one photograph. On at least two occasions storm-petrels were observed flying away from this pond however it is not known if they returned. I am sticking with a conservative count of four white-rumped (Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels) and one dark-rumped (Least Storm-Petrel), though any count of storm-petrels in Arizona is radical. Full list here. While these observations were occurring, postings were being made to the AZ/NM list server and mostly to the Arizona Birding Facebook Group. I and a few others decided to leave this location and check out some other ponds in the area. While we did not find any more storm-petrels at the ponds, we had one all dark storm-petrel fly over the road about six miles north of the Amado WTP. We left this one unidentified.

Three Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels hanging out in a sewage pond.

Three Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels hanging out in a sewage pond. Photo by Laurens Halsey/Macaulay Library.

About an hour later I sent one of the photographs of the shearwater to David Vander Pluym while he and Lauren Harter were en route. They quickly identified it as a Wedge-tailed Shearwater, which will be a new species for the state once accepted by the Arizona Bird Records Committee. Though the shaking subsided in a few more hours, the excitement continued for a few more days. The day following the storm, I joined Molly Pollock and Mark Stevenson. We checked the Amado WTP: no storm-petrels or any other pelagic. Then we headed to Patagonia Lake where we found David & Lauren, two Common Terns, and no storm-petrels. We considered checking out Pena Blanca Lake but then received a report of a storm-petrel at the Benson STP. Unfortunately for us this storm-petrel did not linger, however there was another being reported from Mesa (yet another Wedge-rumped!). That bird lingered until after sunset and was enjoyed by many, excluding us. We called it a day after Benson since each of us had other obligations to tend to.

On Saturday 9/10, three days after the storm, Bill Scott reported an all dark storm-petrel at Benson STP. We identify this individual as a Black Storm-Petrel. This concludes the fieldwork associated with TS Newton, now to the “paperwork”.

Newton's 5th tubenose took a few more days to show up: this Black Storm-Petrel wasn't seen until the 10th.

Newton‘s 5th tubenose took a few more days to show up: this Black Storm-Petrel wasn’t seen until September 10th. Photo by Laurens Halsey/Macaulay Library.

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Chapter 3

Brian Gibbons

By 14:00 the constant light to moderate rain of the morning had pretty much stopped and wind had never been a factor. Around 16:00 I had seen the reports of storm-petrels at Amado and Patagonia Lake and knew there could be something flying around Tucson. I decided to check Civano Pond with my 23 month-old son Grayson in tow, finding just a few Black-necked Stilts. I was disappointed. Then I checked the listserve before heading home and Jeff Coker had reported TWO storm-petrels along Houghton Road. This piqued my interest and I figured Houghton Road was the best pelagic habitat near me so I started driving south from Civano on Houghton Road.

After a few minutes I looked up to see an all-dark storm-petrel circling over the road with several swallows which were very numerous all over east Tucson that afternoon. I quickly realized this was the tiny Least Storm-Petrel, my lifer! In Tucson! After a disheartening miss on a pelagic more than ten years ago. I skidded to a stop and jumped out of the car to get a decent binocular view of this storm waif. My joy quickly turned to fear as the bird kept circling lower and lower and finally got hit by a pickup truck. Fortunately, it ended up on the shoulder and I darted up the road to retrieve it. I was amazed at its diminutive nature, not even the length of my hand, eye still glistening, dead amongst the Saguaros.

Least Storm-Petrel, after a tragic collision with a vehicle.

Least Storm-Petrel, after a tragic collision with a truck. Photo by Brian Gibbons/Macaulay Library.

This first pelagic species whetted my appetite and I headed to a dirt field near I-10 that floods when it rains, I thought perhaps a displaced bird might rest for a minute as we had heavy bands of rain still passing occasionally. Nothing at that puddle so I decided to head to Fred Enke Golf Course where there are a couple ponds. The course was closed but while cruising through the parking lot I saw a white-rumped storm-petrel flyby southbound, I flubbed some photos then raced through the parking lot to jump out of the car, again to flub more photos as the bird disappeared to the south. At this point without any more ponds nearby on the eastside I decided to head home; we live on a hill and have a very good view except to the NE. This move paid off within minutes. A white-rumped storm-petrel flew past heading East, I got some photos and the consensus is that it was another Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel! Quite the yard bird in Tucson! That was at 17:53. I kept watching as there were just a few intermittent sprinkles late in the evening. I watched the swarms of swallows and martins wheeling around trying to descry another storm-petrel.

Juan Fernandez Petrel!

Juan Fernandez Petrel! World’s most unexpected yardbird? Photo by Brian Gibbons/Macaulay Library.

At 18:25 I looked off to the north to see a large bird headed towards me, bowed wings and a few slow flaps. I knew this was a shearwater or petrel. I looked with binoculars briefly before going to the camera and snapped away as it came right past the driveway before disappearing to the WSW. I managed 24 exposures. I texted back-of-camera shots to a few folks and they informed me that it was in fact a petrel, possibly Hawaiian. I really didn’t know what I had, but I stayed out until dark and then family obligations took precedent until about 21:00 when I finally started looking at my photos. Just before 22:00 I got photos online, and at 22:01 Chris Benesh was the first to make the leap and responded with “Juan Fernandez?” After perusing seabird books, I thought it looked good but just seemed too improbable. But as folks with extensive knowledge and field experience (Steve Howell & Alvaro Jaramillo) chimed in it seemed that I had indeed seen a Juan Fernandez Petrel from my yard. Definitely the craziest couple of hours of desert birding in my life.

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Chapter 4

David Vander Pluym with Lauren Harter

Hurricane Newton was supposed to weaken by the time it reached Arizona but there was the potential it would still be a tropical storm when it crossed the border. With a storm path similar to Lester (1992) I had hopes that it might bring one or two storm-driven birds into the state, but both Lauren Harter and myself had things to do the day the storm was supposed to hit and hopes weren’t as high as they should have been to make the drive across state for a weak storm. Arizona has had several tropical storms in recent years which lacked wind and instead of rare seabirds only brought rain. Based in Lake Havasu City, we had to make the decision whether it was worth driving across the entirety of the state for a piece of the pelagic pie. However, soon after the storm passed into Arizona the reports started to trickle in and we decided that even though we would not make it until late that the night the chase was on!

We spent the car ride crossing the state following all that was being found and helping provide information on identification. With the reports we had developed a plan to stay in Nogales overnight and try Patagonia Lake in the morning for any lingering birds. Storm-petrels are nocturnal and often become disoriented by lights and this plan would give us a chance to check lights along I-19 where many were found during the day. In previous visits the rest area south of Green Valley had a lot of nocturnal visitors such as moths and snakes, and I thought that the isolated lights of the rest area might provide our best chance. Not seeing lights in Green Valley that looked worth investigating we arrived at the rest area at about 10:30PM and almost immediately I found a downed white-rumped storm-petrel. Upon closer inspection I was able to identify it as a Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel!

A 10:30pm Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel, in a highway rest area! Photo by Lauren Harter/Macaulay Library.

After getting some documentation photos and measurements as well as checking the rest of the rest area, we headed back north to Tucson to drop it off with a volunteer with Tucson Wildlife Center (unfortunately the bird apparently didn’t make it but will be preserved as a valuable specimen). Trying bright lights around Nogales after midnight didn’t turn up anything more, and we headed to bed around 1:30 a.m. Quite a Wednesday night. The next day we had two Common Terns at Patagonia Lake but no tubenoses. Chasing after a storm-petrel in Benson proved fruitless but then one was found in Mesa which we were successful in seeing!