Birding Prescott's Granite Dells area

January 28, 2015
A visit to the mile-high city of Prescott provides a whole new habitat for birds that are rarely, if ever, seen in the desert valley of Phoenix.  Needing no coaxing to join my friends on this trip, we met at 7:30 a.m. at McD's on East Carefree Highway after driving from our various home locations (Peoria, Scottsdale, Apache Junction).    Kathy Heyman joined Susan and I for this outing.  Kathy spoke of getting more serious about birding and wanting to see how we went about it.  It was easy for me to relate to that idea: it was just a few years ago ( 2011) that life presented me the opportunity to take my casual birding to another level.  Susan has  been a key birding companion in helping me drop my "casual" habits to, instead, learn actual identification markers for the birds to tell "why this bird is not that bird".  

After about an hour's drive, we arrived at our first birding site, Watson Lake Riparian area.  At 38 degrees F., a bit chillier than our Valley's 55 degrees, we quickly donned our heavier coats to follow the trail toward a bridge that runs over the highway.  This first stop of the day was mainly to see if a Barn Owl might still be located on the support-beams beneath the bridge.  Kathy had shown it to Susan a couple months ago and although we spent a little over a half hour there, the Owl was a no-show.  

We planned to visit a total of four birding spots in the Granite Dells area of Prescott today so the next stop was at a Granite Dells community with lots of tall pines and junipers.

Kathy and Susan 
Glimpse of exposed bedrock with lumpy boulders 

Here we started to see some higher-elevation birds such as  Hairy and Acorn Woodpeckers, Bushtits and Dark-eyed Juncos, including Slate-colored and Oregon forms.

We used our next stop, Granite Basin, for our lunch break at a picnic table facing the lake. There were also at least a dozen Western Bluebirds flitting about and even posing for us.  With overcast skies, my photos don't begin to reflect the male's brilliant blue head, wings and tail.  The ducks on the water included a pair of American Wigeon, several Ring-necked Ducks, a single Mallard and five American Coots.
Western Bluebird (male)
Granite Basin Lake
Ring-necked Duck
It was a lovely place for lunch, after which we quietly searched that basin area until we found its birds.  Like a treasure hunt, we turned up some real gems: White-breasted Nuthatch, Steller's Jay, Mountain Chickadee and, finally, a Red-breasted Nuthatch.  The Western Bluebirds seemed to follow us wherever we went.

Final stop of the day was at Willow Lake.  Watson and Willow Lakes are small man-made reservoirs within the Granite Dells formation.  There appears to be a very good trail system throughout the Dells.  We saw hikers on many different trails and, at Willow Lake, met one couple who had just hiked around both lakes - approximately five miles.  

Kathy & Susan at Willow Lake
The six Eared Grebes we spotted out on the lake may have been Life Birds for Kathy - the first time she had ever knowingly seen them.  Bufflehead are very white ducks, but showing even more white and being much larger were five Snow Geese at the far end of the lake.  Sightings like these are what keep birders out in the field.  We may start out just to see what's there but certain birds can certainly get the adrenalin going.  
We spotted a total of 38 species today. 

Without too much comment on the photo below, I'll point out the alignment of the holes in this Ponderosa Pine.  Sapsuckers tend to drill holes in a fairly straight line; they are after insects. When they leave, the hole becomes a "well" filled with sap.  I've often seen Ruby-crowned Kinglets at sapsucker wells enjoying the insects that caught in the sap.

Kathy and Susan at the sapsucker wells
We wrapped up our day in the Granite Dells area about 3:30 p.m. for the return trip to our cars and respective homes. 
While we had been enjoying an active day in the field, our birding friends back in the Valley were rushing to Sweetwater Wetlands in Tucson to see a rare pair of Trumpeter Swans that had been reported in late morning out on one of the big ponds.  While we regretted not being able to make that run ourselves, we were reminded of another birder's tag line:  So Many Birds, So Little Time.

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More than birds out in the Desert

January 27, 2015
On my recent visit to Santa Cruz Flats with an Audubon group, I saw, for the first time,

The Antelope Jackrabbit -- not to be confused with the Jackalope (a fictional cross between an antelope and jackrabbit, likenesses of which are sold in old-west shops) -- prefers ultra dry desert such as the Santa Cruz Flats.  What caught my attention when it hopped away from us was the white on its hips and legs.  Its ears, too, were lined with white instead of black.

The Black-tailed Jackrabbit is the only one I had seen in the Sonoran Desert in the Phoenix area: perhaps four to six each year at various birding locations.  Veterans Oasis Park in Chandler is a good birding spot for running across this species.

Both of these hare have very long ears - up to 8" long that help to regulate their temperature. They both also have very long strong hind legs that enable them to hop 5 to 10 feet at a time.
The Antelope Jackrabbit is slightly larger than the Black-tailed weighing about ten pounds, to the Black-taileds six pounds.  

Named after the fast African antelope, the Antelope Jackrabbit can accelerate up to 45 mph., while the Black-taileds reach only about 30 mph. Wouldn't that be a sight to behold?!   Both hare are nocturnal, so I feel lucky to have seen, finally, the one I had never laid eyes on before.  In daytime, both species can be resting in the shade beneath a large plant.  When disturbed, they tend to sit up, size up the situation, then take a few lazy hops unless pursued when they expand their hopping distance to three or more feet.

The Black-tailed Jackrabbit is browner overall than the Antelope and its very large ears are tipped with black.  It's about two feet long and weighs up to six pounds.

Black-tailed Jackrabbit photographed at Veterans Oasis Park, Chandler, AZ
The Antelope Jackrabbit is a bit larger and heavier at ten pounds.
Antelope Jackrabbit photo from internet.
Seeing either jackrabbit hopping across the desert is enough to stop me in my tracks!

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Coon Bluff & Goldfield Recreation Areas along the Lower Salt River

January 26, 2015
After seeing reports yesterday of a rare (for here) Harris's Sparrow being seen for the second time in a couple weeks at Coon Bluff, Susan and I met there at 8:00 this morning to try our luck at finding a single sparrow in acres of mesquite bosque.  Susan had contacted Jay Miller, the birder who had first located and then re-found the bird, for good directions on where he had seen it yesterday.  Bird's fly, so knowing where it was yesterday was no guarantee for today, but it would put us into the area and we could search from there.  

We entered the bosque on a horse trail.  Looking for a bird about a half inch larger than a White-crowned Sparrow with which the Harris's hangs out was tedious.  I got excited when I saw a Dark-eyed Junco but that was short-lived since it had too much dark hood and no white belly.  Still, we sorted through White-crowned Sparrows scratching around on the ground.  I got easily distracted when a flock of Western Bluebirds flew in, some settling on the bare mesquite, others on the ground, both males and females.

Male Western Bluebird
Female Western Bluebird
In our searching through White-crowned Sparrows, we were moving the flock away from us, so we, too, walked slowly, quietly forward.  We were well into wild horse territory by the time we spotted part of the band associated with Coon Bluff.

As almost always, it was Susan (she doesn't like me to call her Eagle Eye - but she sure has one) who first spotted the rare bird!  

White-crowned Sparrow & Harris's Sparrow
It was quite a thrill to see the somewhat larger sparrow that winters mostly in the mid to south central part of the country out here in Arizona desert.  It must have been finding plenty of food and may have enjoyed our company.  Because, as we returned toward the car, we met Lindsay Story and another birder, Jay, coming toward us.  As we stood together telling her where she might find it, Jay said, "Here it is!"  Very close to us was our rare Harris's Sparrow!

Harris's Sparrow
After savoring our successful sighting of our target bird, we decided to drive over to Goldfield Recreation Area to aim for a sighting of a Gilded Flicker.  The parking lot there is blocked with a gate but there is limited parking on the west side of the entrance road to the recreation area.  We spotted two Red-shafted Northern Flickers, several Gila Woodpeckers and several chattering Black-tailed Gnatcatchers. The way they make their tail go round in circles always fascinates me.  I heard a Greater Roadrunner and when Susan caught up with me, she had seen it.  Sighting one of them always seems to be a good-luck token, so we continued walking past the gate, through the parking lot, toward the Salt River.  From up on the bluff, we spotted numerous (40 or so) Cedar Waxwings that had just flown in and perched on the bare cottonwoods below us.

Cedar Waxwings
It wasn't until we returned to the cars that we spotted our desert woodpecker, the Gilded Flicker, on top of a saguaro.  Perched, it was indistinguishable from a Red-shafted Flicker in our cloud-cover light, but the moment it flew and flashed yellow beneath its wings, we knew we had lucked out again.

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Clicking on the photos will enlarge them.

Santa Cruz Flats, Pinal County, AZ

January 24, 2015
Up early to meet Maricopa Audubon Society birders for a field trip to Santa Cruz Flats with Dr. David L. Pearson, Research Professor in ASU's School of Life Sciences, I was in birding friend, Susan's car when Dr. Pearson walked over to ride with us.  Yay!  That would make us the first car of three driving the mostly dirt roads throughout the wide expanse of agricultural fields between Phoenix and Tucson.  Twelve of us departed Tempe Library parking lot at 6:30 a.m.
Only two weeks prior, I had joined a Sonoran Audubon group birding the same area with Claudia Kirscher, as leader.  Birds can change considerably from day to day, so my blog will incorporate photos from both visits but will concentrate on today's trip.

Birding from the car, including stops and starts, began at 7:30 a.m.  We birded some desert scrub on Harmon Road searching for Sagebrush Sparrows.  They don't stay put at all!  If perched, they seem to know when they are spotted and mostly, they run on the ground for cover beneath the next bush.  To get good views of three (3) Sagebrush Sparrows felt wonderful.  They're not an easy bird to locate because of their furtive and quick behavior.  The other nice desert bird singing on distant Creosote and cactus plants was the Bendire's Thrasher, most easily identified by its song that differs from that of the Curve-billed Thrasher.  

Since the birds were quick and distant, I focused for a while on taking photos of some of the birders, including Dave Pearson who was lining up a Rock Wren in his spotting scope.  The Sawtooth Mountains in the background are part of the Ironwood Forest National Monument.

Maricopa Audubon field trip to Santa Cruz Flats
Finally, a bird stayed still.  This handsome little Loggerhead Shrike is not a bird you want to mess with - especially if you are a small lizard or an insect that it preys upon.  Fairly common in the west, it tends to sit out openly to hunt alone.  It sallies out for insects or drops down on unsuspecting prey that it will carry in both its bill and feet back to its perch for a meal.

Loggerhead Shrike
Other birds seen in various locations within the Flats were the ever-present Horned Larks and one of just a couple Burrowing Owls.  The Horned Larks' chirps and high-pitched song are usually heard prior to finding this large sparrow-sized bird in open fields.

Horned Lark (photo by David Kennedy)
Burrowing Owl (photo by David Kennedy)
Any trip to Santa Cruz Flats will test the strength of your bladder.  Even with a rest stop along I-10 right before entering the area, there are scant places for relief.  A single Creosote bush in a wide open desert - with birders carrying binoculars and scopes - is not the ideal situation.  I was definitely pushing my luck in that regard when Dave finally said we would head for lunch by the Tamarisk trees.  He directed the women to the east; the men to the west.  The only problem with the area is the obvious trash left behind by illegal border crossers who simply ditch their belongings when they, apparently, meet their ride out of there.  None of us cared!  We walked quickly to a place where we could squeeze under some branches for a speck of privacy to find relief.

Steve F. and Susan enjoying lunch at the rear of her car.
 Never have I been on a trip with Dave Pearson that his wife, Nancy, didn't send along a very large container of very large chocolate chip/nut/fruit cookies.   As always, we topped off our lunch with one of Nancy's delicious full-meal cookies.  

At the Wheeler-Baumgartner area, we saw what Claudia had identified on my previous visit as a partially leucistic (many white feathers, but not albino) Red-tailed Hawk.  Today, I mistook it for one of our desired birds, Crested Caracara, because of its white-ish wing tips.  In birding, we learn early on that feather colors are NOT the way to ID birds; it is about size, shape, movements, etc., and so it was in this case.  Birding, for me, will take the rest of my life to learn as fully as I want to.   

Partially leucistic Red-tailed Hawk
Photos by David Kennedy from underneath and when it banked

The moment of truth was upon us.  When Dave had asked what birds we wanted to see on this trip and we all responded, "Sprague's Pipit", we knew it was a very long shot.  It is a rare bird that Dr. Pearson had found several weeks prior on a trip to the Flats and only a handful of birders had been able to spot it since. As I recall it was only the third sighting of the Sprague's Pipit in Arizona birding records.  I did my homework so I would recognize it on the outside chance it would make an appearance.  No pressure, Dave; it would be a Life Bird for each of us!   Being in the first car gave us the awesome advantage of seeing a bird in the dirt road in front of us, fly up, revealing its many white outer tail feathers before setting down in the middle of a dead-grass field.  THE bird!  It stayed visible for about 5 minutes before skulking very low in the grass out of sight.
We celebrated our good fortune with another one of Nancy's healthy chocolate chip cookies!
Distant Sprague's Pipit aware of 12 birders observing it 
More Sprague's Pipit

After wrapping up a full day of successful birding at Santa Cruz Flats, we chose to explore a new location with our leader.  One car returned to Phoenix as it was after 3:00 p.m., but 8 of us continued on to sewage ponds on Casa Blanca Road off of I-10 (east) at Exit 175.
Among the first birds quite visible behind the fencing of the ponds holding water, one stood out; it was a juvenile Snow Goose.  Fencing is not kind to cameras (or to photographers who don't know the trick of shooting through it) so I settled on the fence.

Being short in stature was not an advantage here.
Even Susan stood on the car to view the ponds.
Dr. Pearson estimated 2500 waterfowl of 13 species on the water.

Back in Tempe around 4:00 p.m., Nancy (Dave's wife) took a photo of Susan's carload of birders.  Another beautiful day of birding with some impressive birders!

L-R:  Babs, Steve F., Dave Pearson, Susan Fishburn

Granite Reef Recreation Area along the Lower Salt River; Tonto National Forest, Mesa, AZ

January 23, 2015
Colder at the river than at home, my four light layers felt insufficient for 40 degrees F.
Birds were already in the bare tree tops sunning, so I walked out onto the sunny entrance road to view them.  What a great way to bird!  Timing couldn’t have been better.  While a dozen House Finches and a couple Lesser Goldfinch may not be birds to get excited about

the Gray Flycatcher certainly was!

Birds flew in and out keeping me there for a nice warming time before I braved the riverside. 
Red Mountain, across the river, is always a beautiful sight - on any day.

 A raft of Buffleheads were swimming and foraging in mid-river directly in front of me.  

Male and female Bufflehead

Common Goldeneye are always a treat to see, too!

Male and female Goldeneye
After walking all the way to the end of the west trail, I returned by way of the berm.  The retention basin held just a little pond of water -- enough to attract a Black Phoebe. Two Say’s Phoebes were perching low, zipping out for an insect and back again along the berm where I walked.

Before long, I was back in the picnic area where I was able to photograph a male Ladder-backed Woodpecker before returning home.  

Male Ladder-backed Woodpecker
Temperature had reached 49 degrees F.  --  too cold for my Arizona blood.

Colorado River [Parker Dam, Bill Williams Delta, Lake Havasu & Cibola NWR]

January 18 & 19, 201
The drive to Arizona’s west coast - the Colorado-River - covers enough miles from where I live in the center of the state that it takes a bit more planning than the spontaneous birding trips that I often do.  Thorough planning was done in advance so that early Sunday morning (January 18th) I met my friend, Susan, and was putting my gear in the bigger car while it was still dark.  We were halfway to Quartzite with birds starting to appear in the sky when it hit me.  My binoculars and camera, in my backpack, might not have been switched to this car.  Yikes!  I had tucked the black pack on the passenger-side floor of my car by habit since I always like to have my binoculars at hand but didn’t notice it when I glanced in the front and back seat areas before locking the car in the morning darkness.  Now, here I was setting off on a two-day birding trip without my bins and camera.   Not an easily digestible circumstance for me to swallow, I mulled it over a bit.  Susan was quick to remind me that an iPhone takes pictures.  And, I did realize that we were headed for water -- my spotting scope would be in constant use.  So, I knew I was in for a challenge. [Sharing binoculars worked out well and my scoping ability improved by the end of the trip.]

Taken on California side of the Colorado River toward Arizona
After a fuel fill-up in Quartzite, we headed directly to Parker where we crossed over the Colorado to bird what is known as the Parker Strip running north-south along the river up to Parker Dam.  Much of  the land along the 17-mile strip is federal BLM land (Bureau of Land Management) with access at various points to the river.  We explored day-use areas such as Rock House, Bull Frog, Quail Hollow and Cable Car for birds in the river and riparian areas.  Bufflehead were foraging at a couple stops, but the best finds were one Canvasback, a truly handsome duck, and many, many Lesser Scaup as well as one Ring-billed gull that flew past.  As a desert dweller, it's always a thrill to see these waterfowl that don't necessarily show up in our neighborhood ponds each winter.  The desert habitat along the river was full of the sound of Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, Verdin and Yellow-rumped Warblers. 

Right about here, I should be showing you photos of the wild burros we saw in the Day Use Areas, but I've posted burro pictures in earlier blogs, so if you need to see what they look like, just scroll down until you find them.  I rarely use my smart-phone's camera, so it's going to take a few tries to get it going reasonably well.

After we crossed Parker Dam back into Arizona, we pulled off the highway.  With the spotting scope, I zeroed in on a couple Redheads, a Common Loon and a Great Egret way below.  This trip is all about finding and enjoying resident birds in this area and whatever other vagrants might show up; there have been no recently posted rarities. 

It was at Havasu Springs Resort that we saw an abundance of Clark's Grebes.  On our desert lakes, we usually get Western Grebes and need to really sift through them carefully to find a single Clark's.  Here, it is just the opposite, but with the scope I picked out two Western Grebes.   Our other highlights here were a Horned Grebe, Eared Grebe and three Common Loons.  Susan, rarely needs the scope; she has excellent eye sight and used the scope mostly for confirming her sightings of, for instance, the Common Loons.

The photo below was taken from Bill Williams Headquarters where we found a pair of Barrow's Goldeneye.  The female's yellowish-bill helped us pick out the couple from the many Common Goldeneye in the cove.

Bill Williams Headquarters

Marsh at Bill Williams NWR

To avoid a crush of people in Lake Havasu City for the Balloon Festival, we had planned a mid-afternoon arrival.  As we approached the city, we noticed many vintage VW Campers heading south, one after the other, so, fortunately, we had  missed their "Round Up", too.

At Rotary Park, Susan found a Herring Gull among hundreds of Ring-billed Gulls along the shore.  Lots of Rock Pigeons were hanging out there, too, at the picnic ramadas and next to the man on the beach tossing popcorn up in the air.

Ring-billed Bull

Popcorn for the Birds!
We birded until we could no longer see!  When we reached the hotel, we sat in the parking lot listening to the end of the Seattle v Green Bay playoff game.  We watched the overtime in the lounge!  Susan moved to Arizona from Washington State.   A bird won!

It had been a long day; we slept soundly and waited for daylight before heading out to bird this morning.

Sunrise on the mountains from our motel in Lake Havasu City

After birding Site 6 and London Bridge Park for an hour, we headed south to check out Cibola National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).  Although located in Arizona, it requires a drive to Blythe, CA, to drive south on Neighbors Blvd. with an eventual re-cross of the Colorado to reach the Refuge.  As we had hoped, Sandhill Cranes were abundant.  So, too, were Snow Geese!

We had found some very bird-quiet places during the two days, but the overall trip proved to be very worthwhile.  
Although we returned on a Monday, it was Martin Luther King Holiday, so traffic was flowing for a smooth trip back to the Phoenix Valley in late afternoon.

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Click on photos to enlarge.

View this checklist online at
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Rackensack Canyon & Seven Springs Rec Area

Saturday, January 17, 2015  --  Tonto National Forest

Excited to return to Seven Springs Recreation Area in Cave Creek for the second time in under two weeks, I was up early.   My January 9th visit with birding friends provided a fantastic showing of Western Bluebirds sunning on every bare branch of a tall sycamore tree as we entered the area -- beautiful little birds that I don’t see in the Phoenix Valley.  There was such variety of bird species in the Recreation Area that day, we didn’t explore Rackensack Canyon long enough to find the Fox Sparrows reported there.

Of the four subspecies of Fox Sparrow, I've seen only the Red (Taiga) form in Ontario, CAN--on October 1, 2012, my first sighting of any of the Fox Sparrows and a Life Bird.   Now, while a small flock of Slate-colored Fox Sparrows are being seen, I really wanted to get up to Rackensack Canyon before they flew off.

This morning, I had gathered two friends to join me to explore Rackensack.  My friend, Hanny V. who lives in my community, and my regular birding friend, Susan, joined me to bird the canyon.  Susan ended up driving her high-clearance vehicle for the dirt roads and spring-water crossings. 

Moon setting as we arrived on 1/09/15
Rackensack Canyon
The morning chill gave way to sun on the hillsides bringing the birds to life.  We heard Cactus Wrens; we saw a Northern Flicker's red under-wings flash past us; and heard Spotted Towhees scratching leaf litter on the ground.  The sunshine made us feel better, too!

Susan, Boofy (dog) and Hanny

We birded slowly, each of us spotting one bird or another.  The Western Scrub Jays with their larger size and loud voice were the easiest to spot.  The Verdin and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, both so tiny they can maneuver behind leaves with no problem at all, forced us to stay sharp and quick.  Hanny spotted the Northern Cardinals, a male and a female.  Slowly, we continued walking but at our rate of speed I doubt we covered a full mile one way.  In the 90 minutes we birded Rackensack Canyon, we were visited by Dark-eyed Juncos (Oregon form), Phainopepla, Bewick's Wren, House and Lesser Goldfinch, many White-crowned Sparrows and . . . finally . . . the Slate-Colored Fox Sparrow!   It popped up from a bush to take a look at us from a low tree branch.   But as soon as I lifted my camera lens toward it, the sparrow flew off.  Photo below was found on the internet.

Slate-Colored Fox Sparrow
Seven Springs Road is sometimes paved and sometimes dirt road and after a rain, sometimes a mud road.  Today it was good.

Road toward Seven Springs Recreation Area

Saturday is not a particularly good day to visit the rec area for birding.  There were jeeps, one after the other, going up the road; there were campers and hunters and hikers -- all great activities but not conducive to quiet birding, especially when we rely on our ears.  Jim Ripley had the right idea.  We came upon him at the distant Group Camp Area with a photographer friend.  They were, more or less, perched on the rock wall (built by the CCC in the 1930s) waiting for the birds to come to them.   We walked to the ramada area where we saw three different woodpecker species (Gila, Ladder-backed, and Red-naped Sapsucker), two Cedar Waxwings and at least 25 Chipping Sparrows.  A single Townsend's Solitare was a nice find and we added that to our ongoing list including the two Loggerhead Shrikes we had seen on the drive up.  Elevation is approximately 3,400'.

 The few birds that posed during my two recent visits are below:

Female Phainopepla

Female Cassin's Finch

One male and four female Phainopeplas

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View this checklist online at

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