Beeline Highway: Bushnell Tanks and Sunflower, Maricopa County, AZ

Wednesday, August 12, 2015
Not all my birding friends share my excitement about birding Bushnell Tanks near Sunflower.  Lois L., however, was up for a first visit so she picked me up at 5:15 in order to begin birding there about an hour later.

Immediately, we heard many birds — more songs and calls than I could decipher, but I had just concluded that most were House Finches when one such male flew right up to us and perched on a small juniper. 

Located off of Route 87 to Payson, commonly called the Beeline Highway,  Bushnell Tanks’ elevation is about 2500 feet higher than the Phoenix Valley.  Sycamore Creek runs through the area to Sunflower.

Still in my hard cast boot, we stayed on the slightly uneven surface of the dirt Forest Road 22 after passing through the gate and did not continue along nor past Sycamore Creek which can entail some bushwhacking and very uneven territory.

In a nice mix of desert and riparian habitat of mesquite, juniper, willow and cottonwoods, we SAT along the road listening to flycatchers, vireos and verdin. We worked our way down the dirt road toward the creek with two more SIT stops  and were thrilled with the birds that came close and sang out. While I expect birds to sing in the spring, I was delighted to hear song from the Blue Grosbeak this time of year.

Two Cassin’s Kingbirds worked the high areas of the trees, while the grosbeaks were mid-level. Foraging on open ground, west of the dirt road right before the first cattle guard, were a flock of Lark Sparrows as well as a Chipping Sparrow in very bright breeding plumage. (eBird found the Chipper to be an anomaly at this time of year).  

Just as I picked up my sit-upon bucket to begin the trek back toward the car, I heard a “heavy” sound from the forest. Into our view walked a big black steer.  Lois and I were looking directly at 1000 pounds or more of pure indignation about “space invasion”.  It continued to glare at us, so we dropped our eyes and walked slowly and surely up the grade beyond Mr. Bull.

At this point, a very blue bird flew from a grove of tall trees west of us to a nearby juniper and sang. Knowing what it looked like, I played the song (iPhone app) of the Indigo Bunting. Bingo!  I chalked it up as my best sighting of the 28 species we saw at Bushnell Tanks.

Cassin's Kingbirds (top and bottom)

Next we drove east on Highway 87 a very short distance to the Old Highway 87 (a dead-end road, cut off from the new highway). Ranches and summer homes are located along this old highway and Sycamore Creek.  The highway easements and stream banks support very old tall trees including Arizona sycamores and Fremont cottonwoods in addition to willows, mesquite and juniper…great habitat for a great variety of songbirds, both resident and migrants. 

Normally, I park and walk the old highway but just having walked over a mile in my “boot”, I was content to bird by air-conditioned car, getting out only long enough to snap a few photos of special sightings.

Our first stop occurred as we entered the area. I spied a very long tail in a bare-limbed tree. Weren’t we surprised to find three (3) Greater Roadrunners in the same tree!

Can you find all three?
And then, there were two. . .

Closer look at one of the remaining two Greater Roadrunners

Continuing on, I asked Lois to stop when I heard a Summer Tanager. The male was on a very low hanging branch along the creek for a long time so I thought I’d try for a photo.  Although it was very active, it wasn’t spooked by my presence on the edge of the road. Nonetheless, photos were fuzzy. While I was doing that, Lois suggested I look behind the tanager to the bird perched on a low horizontal limb.  Common Black Hawk!  A first-year juvenile bird, it stayed put and allowed photos. I stood more on the road than on the bank for better stability and it paid off in better photos.

Summer Tanager

First-year Common Black Hawk

Foraging along a grassy area between the road and a rancher’s fence line were a flock of Lazuli Buntings. We spotted only one male; the others were likely female and young.

As we pulled into the cul de sac at the dead end, the clear voice of a Common Yellowthroat from the creek below was music to our ears.  Above, in the sky, we took good looks at two apparent Turkey Vultures because Zonies like this area, too.  Sure enough, one of the two birds was definitely smaller and while banking into the light, showed tail bands consistent with Zone-tailed Hawk. The two of them continued circling above Sunflower providing good size contrast for us to view several times until we left about thirty minutes later 

With Roadrunners, Summer Tanager, Black and Zone-tail hawks among our 27 species seen at Sunflower, all I can say at this point is:  What fun! 

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  1. So glad they succeeded again this year! I was worried that the cobh may not good to see:)