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Storm-driven sea birds detoured to Tucson

When Tropical Storm Newton blew into Tucson last week, most residents were just trying to stay dry. But for Southern Arizona bird watchers, Newton was a rare opportunity to see exotic bird species, some of which have never been recorded before in the state. But some of those sea birds aren't faring well in our desert.

As it whirled north over the Sea of Cortez, Newton scooped up an untold number of pelagic or ocean-going birds. Some survived the onslaught of wind and rain by hiding out in the eye of the storm. When the eye broke apart over Southern Arizona, the birds had no place to go but down.

There were sightings of these rare birds across the region, from Patagonia Lake to Tucson, as far east as Benson and as far north as Mesa.

A hot spot for bird sightings was the Amado Sewage Treatment pond along Interstate 19 about 30 minutes south of downtown Tucson. Among the first birders to arrive was local guide Laurens Halsey. After spotting what he believed to be storm petrels and a shearwater, Halsey reported his findings to the AZ/NM Birding List, and to Andrew Core, who manages the rare bird alerts for the Tucson Audubon Society. Word spread quickly among birders and soon Halsey found himself surrounded by other bird watchers eager to get a look at species rarely seen in the desert.

"There were about 50 people at Amado," said Halsey. "We were standing in the rain, watching these petrels dance on the water and not having any idea exactly what species they were."

When Halsey returned home, he took a closer look at the photos of the shearwater he spotted at Amado. Unsure of what he saw, he sent the photo to an expert in pelagic birds who identified it was a wedge-tailed shearwater. This species of shearwater is widespread in the tropical Pacific and Indian oceans. It sometimes appears off the coast of California. Halsey's "wedgie" is the first known sighting in Arizona.

"I was literally shaking for the next six to eight hours," said Halsey after getting the news. "The adrenaline was flowing so high."

The biggest scoop of the day belonged to Tucson resident Brian Gibbons who, after looking for storm birds arrived home just in time to capture a photo of a Juan Fernandez petrel flying over his driveway. It was the first sighting of this species in North America.

Wednesday was also a busy day at the Tucson Wildlife Center, which fielded dozens of phone calls about storm petrel sightings. Two of the birds were brought to the Wildlife Center, but neither survived.

"They came to us extremely medically depleted," said Executive Director Lisa Bates. "It's a serious challenge to take care of a sea bird who needs salt water and saltwater fish. The best we can do is to provide emergency triage."

By the end of the week, the American Birding Association confirmed three first-time birds sightings for Arizona. That includes Gibbons' Juan Fernandez petrel, Halsey's wedge-tailed shearwater, and numerous wedge-rumped storm petrels. Other confirmed sightings include the least storm petrel and Leach's storm petrel. That number may grow as birders across the region compare photos and notes over the next few weeks.

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Tony Morris/Flickr

A wedge-tailed shearwater

What to do if you spot what might be a sea bird?

Be sure to take photos. Without a good image, it's impossible for other birders to confirm what you saw. Call the Audubon Rare Bird hotline at 629-0510. Press #3 for the hotline, then press #2 to report the sighting. You can also email the image and information to rarebirdalert@tucsonaudubon.org.

What to do if you find a sick or dying pelagic bird?

Take photos and call the Tucson Wildlife Center at 290-9453. If they confirm it's one of the birds brought in by Newton, they may send a volunteer to recover it, or ask you to bring it in. If you can safely pick up the bird, place it in a cardboard box lined with a t-shirt or other soft material. Do not try to feed it or give it water. Then bring it to the Wildlife Center as soon as possible. Be aware that larger birds may bite and can hurt you with their beaks. The center recommends wrapping them up like a burrito and placing them in a covered box.