The Joys of Birding

April 25, 28 & 29, 2015

Photos from some of our amazing local birding spots in the Greater Phoenix area:

At Glendale Recharge Ponds on 4/25, a migrating Willet stopped over.
Willet:  stocky shorebird I know best when in flight by its broad white wing stripes. Common on East Coast.

Spent several hours birding this Tucson hot spot on 4/28/15:

Vermilion Flycatcher - male
Vermilion Flycatcher - female

Western Kingbird
And, on my way home from Tucson, I stopped by the Riparian Preserve at Gilbert Water Ranch to see what might be present in the middle of the day:

Black-necked Stilt; note very slender bill and pink legs.

Long-billed Dowitchers in breeding plumage

Also at Gilbert Water ranch was this studly Gambel's Quail calling attention to himself. 

Brown-headed Cowbird, also at Gilbert Water Ranch

Still present at Lost Dutchman State Park yesterday, 4/29/15, this male Phainopepla was foraging for insects in the air from its good perch:
Phainopepla (Silky Flycatcher)
And, an Ash-throated Flycatcher was doing the same thing from a different perch:

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Pinal Mountains, Gila County, AZ

April 26, 2015
A Spring birding delight in the Pinal Mountains of Globe, Arizona, did not materialize as it has in past years.

Eleven hardy Desert Rivers Audubon members carpooled east from the Greater Phoenix area under dark clouds, cold temperatures and on and off rain. Most of us had checked the forecast and came prepared. Merino wool was closest to my body and layered out from there to my outer raincoat and rain pants.

Dave Pearson, Research professor and Senior Sustainability Scientist at Arizona State University, is a popular bird leader with an excellent ear for bird vocalizations. At 6 a.m., three cars of us slowly, worked our way up the mountain with the temperature staying at 40° for the duration of our birding experience. At several stops in the lowlands, we found Brown-headed Cowbirds, a single Yellow-headed Blackbird (thank you, Veronica, for spotting that one!) and a single perched Bronzed Cowbird, a year bird for several of us.

With us in Susan's car was Mark Ochs, a stellar birder, who has often birded the Pinals with Dr. Pearson. Since we were in the second vehicle, Mark would say, "He'll stop here."  . . . "Well, I guess he'll take the next pull-out."  It didn't happen. Over and over again, he'd say, "Surely, he'll stop at this corner!"  But, no. Dave was riding with the window down and could hear nothing out in the shrubs and trees.

We were in the rain cloud by now (and definitely not in the tropics) as we continued to ascend. He stopped occasionally and would identify many of the birds we were hearing, but seeing them was tough. It was a helpful learning experience for me to have an expert ID the various bird songs, chips and calls. Some of the calls, I recognized from studying; others I hadn't yet learned but corroborated with him when I re-heard ones he had identified.

At one stop higher on the muddy roads, we got out and listened for several minutes. Hearing nothing, he just said, "Phooey!"

Anyone who has been on one of Dave Pearson's bird trips knows that his wife, Nancy, sends along a very large flat container full of freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies. So, out came the cookies for an early snack as we talked about the increasing slickness of the mud on the upgrades.

We continued to work our way up to Sulfide del Rey picnic area where we all turned back. The rain seemed to let up a bit, so we did stop at some of those anticipated spots that Mark was certain would be on the itinerary. 

Both photos taken in the rain with my iPhone

As the rain let up, Dave asked if any of us wanted to turn around and head back up the mountain. A few wanted to go up; most were ready to call it a day. So, birders who wanted to go back up (including Mark from our car) switched to the car going back up. Dave reported later that the rain and clouds continued at the higher levels with snow likely at the peak.

Strangely, the cold and rain affected the BIRDERS more than the BIRDS! I checked off 69 species in the several hours on the mountain. Dave and his group tallied 90 altogether over many more hours. It was the slippery roads that motivated us to get down the mountain.

On our way west toward Phoenix, the cloud cover remained but the highway was dry so we stopped at Boyce Thompson Arboretum for two more hours of birding. I kept my camera tucked beneath my 'layers' due to dripping trees and occasional showers. So, I missed photos of some colorful orioles (Hooded and Bullock's) but pulled it out at the entrance plaza where a volunteer showed us an Anna's Hummingbird nest.

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BIRDY VERDE - 15th Annual Verde Valley Birding & Nature Festival, Yavapai County, AZ

April 22 & 23, 2015
Although this birding festival had reached its 15th year, this was the first time I signed up and participated in any of it.  Two of my friends and I wanted to join in Carl Tomoff's PRESCOTT BIG DAY of birding on Thursday, the 23rd, so we drove up to the Verde Valley a day early to avoid getting up in the middle of the night to be ready to leave Dead Horse Ranch State Park in Cornville at 6 a.m.

On Wednesday, the three of us departed the Phoenix area early to reach Mingus Mountain in the Prescott National Forest between Cottonwood and Prescott via State Route 89A, for some birding of our own. We met a local birder there, Pat Scott, who pointed out some of the best birding spots, and we were delighted that the birds were fairly abundant and singing when we arrived at 8 a.m.

Pat led us onto a trail that required crossing a small stream on rocks right below a small concrete dam, but I was the only one who followed. The other two decided it was risky for getting wet feet and chose to bird the area near where we had parked. Temperature was in the low 40s; I wore a toque, gloves and many layers of clothes; quite a shock when Phoenix temperatures have hovered in the 90s. The cold would not have worked well for wet feet, either!

Bird song was everywhere. In trying to learn bird sounds, hearing many at the same time leads to disaster for my ears! Pat was more accustomed to these species and immediately heard Painted Redstarts who soon showed up to say, "Good Morning."  It was almost as if they wanted to see us (or whoever was walking through their territory) as much as we wanted to see them. Lighting in the dense forest at that hour would not do justice to a Painted Redstart or the Grace's or Olive Warblers that crossed our path. I was thrilled with the hidden path and could have stayed for several hours. But my birding buddies were down by the car and although I expected they were getting good birds, too, I thought the group should stay together, so Pat and I turned back after thirty minutes of spectacular birding. As we did so, two Broad-tailed Hummingbirds whirled past producing their discernible wing buzz.

With all of us in one car, we drove farther down the road to where it was gated. The Forest Service considers April to be part of the winter season so the road will remained closed until they have an opportunity to check all the camp areas and roadways for fallen trees or branches. Then, the gate will remain open. But we had to leave the car at the gate and begin walking.

Sign in front of one of the camps located on the mountain (Located between Cottonwood & Prescott on 89A)

Western Bluebird
Chipping Sparrows were too numerous to count; Western Bluebirds were quite abundant (12) with American Robins being a close second (8). To see five (5) Painted Redstarts seemed rather amazing to me and although I didn't take photos, I've posted one from earlier this year so you know the handsome bird I'm talking about.

Painted Redstart
Other highlights on Mingus Mountain were Mountain Chickadee, Pygmy Nuthatch, Greater Pewee, Dusky, Gray and Ash-throated Flycatchers and both Rock and House Wrens.  We tallied 26 species there in four hours before heading back down the mountain to Cornville.

Although it was not yet opening day for the Festival that would start on Thursday, all tents were set up and we were able to register in person and pick up a name tag -- our ticket for the van ride tomorrow up to Prescott.

The grounds at the Dead Horse Ranch State Park include several lakes, so we birded there, too.

15th Annual Birding & Nature Festival (along Verde River)

Susan beside one of the lakes

Great-tailed Grackle 

Great Horned Owl
With few options for lodging, we ended up at a clean, basic and acceptable motel, The View, that provided a fantastic view over the valley and the mountains beyond.

Thursday morning, we were back at the Festival grounds by 5:45 a.m. to get a good seat in one of two vans taking our group north to Prescott to meet Dr. Carl Tomoff. We chose the one being driven by our friend, Paul Wolterbeek from Boyce Thompson Arboretum.

Driving north on Old Highway 89, we connected with Carl Tomoff at Jerome Waterway in the Granite Dells. He insisted we remain quiet as we exited our vans to get a sense of "place".  Then we began birding in high gear. There were Wood Ducks, Bushtits, Yellow Warbler, a male Common Yellowthroat and various other foraging song birds. Carl, very knowledgeable about the geology, biology, bird habits and habitats, kept us well-informed with comprehensive context for each bird we saw. In the dark of the mountains, photos are slim.
Jerome Waterway

Cooper's Hawk at Jerome Waterway, Granite Dells

Bullock's Oriole, also at Jerome Waterway location in Granite Dells

We made stops along the drive up into the Bradshaw Mountains. There were eight (8) eBird entries, one of which included some of our early driving to the higher elevations. South Senator Highway took us to the intersection with the road from Walker (accessed from Lynx Lake Area) which ended at S. Senator Highway, close to where we parked at 7200' elevation.

Reveling in the fact that the weather was not rain as forecast, but clear and cool, we focused on the Western Tanager whose voice let us know it was in the area. Virginia's, Grace's and Red-faced Warblers were a treat. Mountain Chickadees were vocal and visible; White-breasted and Pygmy Nuthatches were found, Painted Redstarts were at this elevation as were three (3) Black-headed Grosbeak, my first-of-year sighting. 

A picnic lunch was provided by the Festival, included in the fee for the trip, $80.00. Picnic tables were available at the historic Groom Creek School where several of us also got good looks a pair of Olive Warblers. Carl was fascinated by the juvenile Pine Siskins - their youth determined by various characteristics of the bill.

Returning to the lower elevation again, we birded Sundog Waste Water Treatment Plant before concluding our day with 30 minutes of birding from the edges of Willow Lake where a juvenile Bald Eagle was the sighting I liked best.

It had been a grand day of birding with an opportunity to get acquainted with new birders from various parts of the country and to say "Hello" to fellow birders from the Phoenix area.
Carl was his usual excellent "teacher-birder" and over the two days, my friends and I saw 94 species.

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Big Bend National Park, Brewster County, TX - Guided Bird Trip with Melody Kehl for a single bird

April 15-19, 2015
Seven months ago when a birding friend and I hired Melody Kehl, of Tucson, as our guide to find the Five-striped Sparrow in a gulch very close the Mexican border, she invited us to join her trip to Big Bend National Park in the spring to see the rare Colima Warbler. Since my goal is to see as many North American birds as possible, I knew that Big Bend was the only place in the USA to see that bird. So, I jumped in on the trip and had been looking forward to it ever since. The best thing about Melody’s trip was that she knew a shorter distance to see the bird than most other guides I had researched. For her trip, she expected a maximum of five miles round trip on a steep trail rather than the nine to fifteen miles that other guides had mentioned.

Day #1 April 15th:
When April rolled around, preparations for the trip took precedence over some of my other birding options. When April 15th arrived, I was at Melody’s door at 6:15 a.m., ready to join them (her husband, Erich, helped drive). On our way to El Paso to meet other participants, we stopped in San Simon, AZ along I-10 East, to pick up Jackie Lewis, one of Melody’s support team. Jackie has the distinction of being the sole year-round resident in the town of Paradise in the Chiricahua Mountains of SEAZ. She operates the George Walker House B&B and her yard provides great habitat and feeders for birds — a must stop for many birders.

At the Roadrunner Rest Area in the Las Cruces area, we ate lunch (Melody provided salads for us) and birded lightly.

Sculpture made of recycled materials
L-R: Melody Kehl and Jackie Lewis

A later stop at the Deming Cemetery, NM, provided our best “bird fix” along the way. We saw more than 20 American Robins, 4 Western Kingbirds, a Wilson’s Warbler and the usual desert suspects. My best sighting was a Gray Flycatcher, one of my favorites.

Of the fourteen invited participants, six of them who lived in Texas planned to meet us at Big Bend for dinner. The other five had flown into El Paso. The birder I had met at the Tubac Hawk Watch (Bob Acton) was one of the five we met there. An older woman, Lynne, was 72, so we were the two oldest on the trip. Birding photographer,"Beno", and Grant and Lea filled out our group. After meeting one another in the lobby of the Quality Inn, the eight of us enjoyed a very good Mexican meal at a hole-in-the-wall family-owned restaurant (L & J Cafe) that’s been in business since 1927. When we saw about 50 cars parked in the alley restaurant area upon arrival, we figured this low-end section of town was indeed the "#1 spot" for dinner.

Day #2 April 16th:
Up early for our 7:00 a.m. departure from El Paso, both the van and the car from Tucson headed south for Big Bend National Park. For our packed lunches, we stopped to eat and to bird at Fort Davis County Park in Jeff Davis County. My favorite sightings there were the Eastern form of the Curve-billed Thrasher, two Cassin’s Kingbirds and one Lark Sparrow.

Lunch at Fort Davis County Park (photo below)

Eastern form Curve-billed Thrasher (note the anatomy)
Lark Sparrow

And, then, we arrived.

Melody's birding group at Chisos Mtn Lodge Dining Room

View from the deck outside my room. Note the pinnacles in the background. 

The elevation of this rock below, known as Casa Grande, was at an elevation of 7325'.  I could also see this from my back deck and I'm showing it here because it became my "guide" on the trek for the Colima Warbler.

Casa Grande

Day #3 April 17th:
By 6:50 a.m., all fourteen of us were on the Pinnacles Trail in search of a single bird. I've read that fewer than 200 pair of Colima Warblers arrive in Big Bend NP in early April to nest and raise young before returning in August to their home in the Sierra Madre Occidental of Central Mexico. To see the bird requires hiking up to its habitat.
From the moment we stepped foot on the Trailhead at Chisos Basin, I knew it was steeper and rougher than I had imagined from photos of nice dirt trail with pebbles. We started with thick loose gravel and built-in steps. Immediately, I opened my trekking poles and used them the entire time, both up and down the trail. I would use almost every last drop of the 100 ounces of water I carried in my CamelBak, plus using all 8 or 10 Clif Blok energy chews with electrolyte support that Melody provided for us. 

Motivating all of us was a very tiny little brownish-gray warbler with a white eye ring and golden under-tail coverts. After the rough beginning, the trail did smooth out into dirt trail but still included a lot of "steps".

And higher still, the trail stretched out toward Casa Grande rock.

Birdsong and birds accompanied us. Mexican Jays were our constant companion looking for handouts but we were stingy with our supplies. The Black-crested Titmouse was a Life Bird for some. It's raised black crest begins right above its pale forehead; its little dark eye and short dark bill are also easy to spot on its light face.

Best sightings for me on the upward trail were the White-throated Swifts and two Golden Eagles. With the eyes of so many birders, we also spotted a Zone-tailed Hawk.

These birders, new to me, teased me about hiking in high heels because I wear Z-Coil hiking boots with a strong spring in the heel. I've worn them for over ten years to help alleviate compression in my lower back; they're my shock absorbers. But I do watch my step, so I was not actively birding while we hiked but stopped to look at birds that other people called.

Because Melody didn't hear the Colima Warbler at her usual 1.5 mile marker up the trail, she asked if we wanted to continue. Of course we did; so upward we walked to Emory Peak Saddle and rested there for 15 minutes before heading toward Emory Peak. With no sound of the Colima on that trail, we returned to the Saddle and turned on the Boot Springs Canyon Trail where, eventually, we did hear our target bird, the Colima! But we were up on a trail; the warblers were down in the water in a huge tangle of shrubbery, vines and fallen limbs, perhaps 75' below us. 

COLIMA WARBLER was heard down in the Boot Spring far below us in the cottonwoods 

Having already hiked upward over four miles, we had little desire to go downhill for another mile or more to search for the bird. After listening to its call several times, we began our return. There was no "pishing" or using song-playback for it in the National Park.

Melody and happy birder coming toward the saddle from Boot Springs Canyon

Grant, Bob and Lynne
Resting at Emory Peak Saddle (trailhead for Boot Springs Trail)

The best sighting I recall on the return trek was the large bird found by Kay, a very new birder who saw it first but didn't know what it was. Even Melody was surprised to have the Band-tailed Pigeon.
Band-tailed Pigeon (photo by Bob Acton)

Coming to terms with the disappointment of not seeing our bird, but definitely glad we had heard it, we relished another good long rest to "listen for the bird".

After the rest period, we continued down the mountain at our own speed. The younger ones were soon out of sight.

We shared our food with the Mexican Jays and watched them come close.

We had hiked up and past all those pinnacles I could see from my room at the Lodge
I started feeling some shooting pain in the cartilage around my left knee. My knee braces didn't seem to be helping. Melody had some heat-producing ointment that we applied and I continued on. She told me it would not be long before we were all the way down. But I remembered Casa Grande and we were right beside it.

Casa Grande rock from Pinnacles Trail

Probably, we were only half-way down the mountain. As the knee continued to give way during the descent, I began to walk for about five minutes, then rest for one; repeatedly down the "hill".  Four of us went down together: Lea, Jackie, Melody and me. I called us the Final Four. But after 12 hours on the trails, I was glad to reach the trailhead where the van awaited us. Jackie, an EMT, suggested I ice the knees so I skipped dinner with the group to do so. Later, I rubbed my legs and knees with Bio Freeze, took an Aleve and slept soundly.

Day #4 April18th
Before breakfast, we birded the grounds of the Chisos Basin Lodge.  A Summer Tanager and Scott's Oriole were the highlights.  
I felt very good. No pain and my knees were working well. Others were quietly sharing their aches and pains.
On our way to Rio Grande Village, we stopped at Panther Junction where we saw three Scaled Quail, a Yellow and Wilson's Warbler as well as a Cassin's Sparrow.

Rio Grande Village was full of birds so we all came to life again!  Several sightings were First of Year (FOY) for me: Yellow-breasted Chat, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, and Brown-crested Flycatcher. Much of the excitement here was finding birds on nests (Vermilion Flycatcher, Black-chinned Hummingbird and Black Hawk).
Blue Bonnets
Olive-sided Flycatcher
Summer Tanager
Golden-fronted Woodpecker
Brown-crested Flycatcher 
Common Black Hawk

The male Black Hawk was hunting for the female on the nest. Each time he'd drop down for prey, she would call out, making us wonder just what it was she was saying!
Our final stop on our final birding day was at Christmas Mountain Oasis. An older woman named Carolyn had created this habitat for birds and wildlife and by reservation, we had come to enjoy whatever showed up. What a nice set up for photographs and good birds!
Varied Bunting
Green-tailed Towhee
Lincoln's Sparrow
Varied Bunting 
Sun setting on Christmas Mountains
Lazuli Bunting (unusual coloring)
White-crowned Sparrow (Gambelli's) & Pyrrhuloxia
Elf Owl (male & female) Nest hole below the branch   [Photo from Bob Acton]
On the dark dirt and rough road out of Christmas Mountain Oasis, I was riding in the second car in which the radio wasn't working. There was a Common Poorwill that flew down to the road in front of Melody's lead car (I missed seeing it) and a second sighting was funny because of Joan's personality. She's a good-natured go-getter and carries a good-sized camera. The lead car radioed a sighting of something big by the side of the road,(a message our vehicle didn't get) so as we all moved slowly forward Joan lowered her window and was prepared to take a photo. When she asked where "it" was, she was told it was right in front of her. She jumped back, raised the window and didn't take a photo. A Mountain Lion had been looking into her eyes - too close to photograph!
"The Window"     [Photo from Bob Acton]

Day #5 April 19th:
After breakfast, we said "Good-Bye" to the Texas participants and departed the Chisos Mountains Lodge at 8:15 a.m. for El Paso. Our one pause, other than rest stops, was at Marfa Courthouse where we stretched our legs and enjoyed the Pine Siskins in the lawn, the Inca Doves sipping dew from blades of grass, the Barn and Cliff Swallows overhead and a single Western Kingbird on a utility wire.
In El Paso, we parted ways with those flying out from the airport or staying another night at the motel.
When we dropped Jackie at her place in the Chiricahuas, it was tough to turn and leave without doing more birding!
It was almost midnight when I reached home. And, despite not seeing the bird I had longed to view, the overall birding on the trip was awesome. We tallied a total of 92 species between 4/17 & 4/19. A definite "thumbs up" for a well-planned trip! 

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View this checklist online at