Salt River: Granite Reef and Coon Bluff Recreation Areas, Maricopa County, AZ

Friday, September 25, 2015
Waking up with birds on my mind, I headed to the Salt River. While there’s a sameness about returning to this area, it offers a variety of sightings which is something I like to observe. It’s also familiar . . . comfortable . . . like a home base of birding.

Beginning at Granite Reef Recreation Area at 6:30 a.m. (79°F), birds were just beginning to head to the tops of sunlit trees. Across the parking lot, I heard a familiar call that I thought was a Gray Flycatcher. It’s always rewarding to have my binoculars land on the “assumed” bird, as it did this time. It was flicking its tail downward, another identification characteristic that nailed it for me.

The sharp “pik” call of a Ladder-backed Woodpecker near the middle of a mesquite tree caught my attention. I found it before it flew.

While birding the circle west of the picnic area, I spotted two Bullock’s Orioles (both females, or perhaps one young), an Anna’s Hummingbird, a couple Black-tailed Gnatcatchers and two Common Yellowthroat.  Back in the picnic area, the Great-tailed Grackles were just getting up out of the marsh grasses. Either, they were having a bad feather day or they’re in the molt process.

Back-lit Great-tailed Grackles just getting up this morning
Waterfowl directly out from the picnic area was scarce. A Great Blue Heron was successfully fishing on the opposite shore (Native American land) while five American Coots dabbled for breakfast.

American Coots

As I followed the east trail for a change, I came upon a House Wren, Violet Green Swallows and one Black Vulture flying above Red Mountain across the Salt River. A Sphinx Moth caught my attention when I thought it was a hummingbird!

By the time I saw a couple paddle boarders heading quickly downstream, I realized I had already birded at Granite Reef for a little over an hour.

Leaving there and driving east, I pulled into the entrance road of Coon Bluff to the sight of a a Greater Roadrunner that decided to “run with the car” for almost a full minute. It was on the right-hand side of the road, so I pulled into the vacant left lane moving slowly and watching it. Eventually, it darted eastward into the desert.

Farther ahead, another Roadrunner showed itself briefly before disappearing and when I reached the parking lot, one was wandering around the edges.

Greater Roadrunner

Not every visit to Coon Bluff offers up Roadrunners so I took advantage for some photos with the one in the parking lot.

Almost always, a Vermilion Flycatcher shows up at Coon Bluff and today was no exception.

Living up to its name, the male Vermilion just caught a fly
Turkey Vultures are not my favorite bird, but when one perches up on the bluff giving me a close camera shot, I go for it.

I’m also practicing “in-flight” photography for birds more important to me than vultures, but I need to start somewhere. 

Birds were everywhere: overhead, on the ground, on the bluff (two Rock Wrens chasing each other), in the trees and at the water.

The Belted Kingfisher alerted me with its rattle call and I caught sight of it several times, but never a belly view that would have determined for me whether it was male or female.  The female has a rufous-colored breast band below the blue one, while the male has just the blue chest band.

A Spotted Sandpiper showed itself at two different locations. In its basic plumage, its breeding spots are gone but it was exhibiting its familiar tippy behavior (forward and back).

Spotted Sandpiper

Rock Squirrels love the rip rap along the river.

Other mammals made an appearance, too:
Two wild horses on Indian Land across the Salt River as I walked eastward
One wild horse also across the river when I returned

On my return from my walk eastward past the big cottonwood tree, I came upon Lindsay Story and her Dad. It was good to see them out and about and as we stood talking beside the river, two Sharp-shinned Hawks flew in with one perching in a mesquite directly over our heads!  

After a mile an a half of a loop walk there, I was feeling the heat so I wrapped up with a photo of a dragonfly (Flame Skimmer?) and headed home. 

At the end of the exit road, a Harris's Hawk was perched on a utility pole and allowed me to get a photo.

Harris's Hawk
Until the next time, then.

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White Mountains of Arizona (Navajo & Apache Counties)

September 21 & 22, 2015  (Monday and Tuesday)
I love the White Mountains.  More specifically, perhaps, I should say I love to VISIT the White Mountains. When I moved to Arizona in 1995, I worked nine hours/day to get an extra day off every other week just to go to that high country to hike. Now, I’ve discovered its birds. The love affair continues.

Maybe that’s what impelled me to travel up there solo after having planned a trip with two birding friends who exhibited a bit more common sense than I did. The forecast called for Tropical Depression Sixteen E from Baha to visit Arizona, including the White Mountains, during our planned trip. Exhibiting uncommon sense, (other adjectives have been used), I drove up anyway, leaving at 5 a.m. on Monday morning.  

With little traffic so early on my trip east through the beautiful Salt River Canyon, I was able to start birding at Woodland Lake Park in Pinetop at 8:10 a.m.  I walked less than a quarter mile on the trail leading west from the parking lot before pishing brought me all the birds I would take the time to see there.  Blue sky was totally curtained with thick gray "marine layer".  

MacGillivray's Warbler preening

Lewis's Woodpecker

As I drove south through Pinetop on Route 260, I stopped at the Hunting and Fishing License center that issues Recreation Permits for the White Mountain Apache Indian Reservation.  For birding purposes, a $10 permit is good for a full car of up to eight people.
I was hoping to visit two specific sites on Apache land.

My first stop was actually Sheep's Crossing because I missed the turn to Sunrise CG!
Looked for the American Dipper with no success but heard Gray Jays among other birds.

Then, I remembered that I needed to make the turn toward Sunrise Ski Resort before seeing the cutoff to the campground.  So, I took that turn and almost immediately saw the road up into the campground. There, I took a snack break and listened to bird sounds. It was here that I found at least four (it sounded like more) Red Crossbills - not a common bird for me to see, even up there.

Forest at Sunrise Campground

Having never visited Pole Knoll Recreation area before, I stopped there, too. It is definitely a good stop, but light showers began so I just took some photos of the place to remember to add it to my next trip. In 10 minutes, I heard two Gray Jays and a Western Wood Pewee.

Aspen leaves just beginning to turn; Pole Knoll

I actually tried birding from the car in the rain by driving into Greer’s Butler Canyon Nature Trail area where I thought I might be able to spy a couple Williamson’s Sapsuckers who generally hang out around the parking area. Upon entering the road, however, I noted for the first time, a fairly large warning that I was entering a FLASH FLOOD area.  Yikes.  Realizing the rain was just beginning, I continued and did park and viewed the trunks of every tree before leaving without having seen a single bird!
Heeding the warning, I didn’t return the next day.

Being a bit of a diehard, I drove all the way in to South Fork in the rain where I sat in the car and got this photo through a briefly opened window.

The sunny flowers looked dramatic in the rain, South Fork
I had birded four locations with reasonable success:  Woodland Lake Park in Pinetop, Sheep’s Crossing, Sunrise Campground and Pole Knoll. There was little else but rainfall at South Fork.

Heavy rain continued through the afternoon which I spent in my room at Reed’s Lodge.  Not having television at home, I laughed through an old Western film before focusing on weather reports that were half-heartedly good for tomorrow.

Heavy rain continued through the night, off and on, and I know this because I was awake with a killer sinus headache with no aspirin or Tylenol in my bags. 

As dawn approached, I realized that the few cars passing by weren’t making splashy tire sounds. Tires were running on dry pavement — Yay!  I got up and moved forward to another day in the field.

Day #2
The South Fork of the Little Colorado River, one of the best birding places in the White Mountains, was a dud in yesterday's rain, but I looked forward to a good morning there.
Encouragingly, along Highway 260, American Kestrel, Western Meadowlarks, Western Bluebirds and Common Ravens got my juices flowing.

My first sighting at South Fork was a Red-naped Sapsucker, photo of which will stay on my computer.  It’s that bad, but still proof I saw it there on that date.

With my back to the South Fork of the Little Colorado River, this is the scene

Don't laugh. Find the Pinyon Jay. Find the Clark's Nutcrackers.

From birding this spot in recent years, I knew there was a chance I would see specific birds here that I could add to my Arizona’s Year List.  As I was tracking down some chips and calls from deep shrubs where birds stayed hidden while moving, I heard familiar calls overhead.  A flock of Pinyon Jays flew from south to north.  I counted thirteen. . .no, a few stragglers. . .five more…and then one or two others.  Their call sounds to me like a Halloween laugh track.  Before leaving, they flew back over, adding more to their group, including at least two Clark’s Nutcrackers.

Most of my sightings there were treasured. Two Gray Catbirds called back and forth to one another from opposite sides of the paved road with the one on the west side finally flying over to the east side.  Nice.

A female Belted Kingfisher was a surprise, while the Pinyon Jays, Townsend’s Solitaire and Clark’s Nutcracker were more expected.  It was the warblers that got the best of me by staying hidden. The only ones I could identify with certainty were the Yellow-rumped Warblers that were just arriving.

From the bridge, looking east at the South Fork of the Little Colorado River

Second stop of the day was at Benny Creek Campground, another new area to explore, thank you, Tommy. Tommy DeBardeleben has added a White Mountain section to his very comprehensive Maricopa County birding locations.  It was invaluable, Tommy!

Seeing only two campers in the area, I parked in an empty spot near a restroom.  As I got out of the car, I heard what sounded like a Downy Woodpecker’s contact call. When I looked at all the pines, I noticed the trunks were black - having been burned in one of the big Greer fires - and realized the deeper tone of the call was more likely that of the American Three-toed Woodpecker.  I glanced at all the nearby trunks but by then, the pwik call had moved deeper into the woods.  Dang!  When I returned from the restroom, a light shower had begun so I dug out my raincoat and continued walking and taking what photos I could from quite a distance.  But the only woodpecker that materialized was a Northern Flicker. 

Cooper's Hawk

American Robin
Two things I didn’t expect there were Canada Geese flying over the secluded forested 
campground, and more rain showers. The dark clouds had been building. The geese probably came from Greer Lakes, just a bit south. So, when I left Benny Creek, I took time to stop at Bunch Reservoir, the first of the Greer Lakes, but the rain increased and I didn't stay long.

Why don't I check Sheep's Crossing again? The thought became action. Would an American Dipper mind a bit of rain?  As I walked the trail from the parking lot toward the bridge, peeking into every opening that revealed the rather deep-flowing West Fork of the Little Colorado River, I was stunned to peer into one opening with the back of a gray Dipper perched on a rock not five feet from me. It wasn't dipping. It turned its head and looked me in the eye with its dark eye and light eyelid. I backed away and headed to the car for my camera. Of course, it was gone when I returned. But I heard it. That was a new experience. I followed its voice but it flew twice as I unknowingly closed in on it, so I gave it its space and returned to the car. No wonder my heart murmurs!

West Fork of the Little Colorado at Sheep's Crossing
Altogether I birded six different sites in two mornings and counted 39 species (including those along Highway 260 that are not entered into eBird) before being completely derailed by rain. Thus, photos are scarce or not very good. And, yes, I  prefer to bird in more favorable circumstances.  That's why I was glad to hear that my two absent birding friends had re-arranged our visit for next Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday when I can return to three forecast sunny days in the White Mountains.

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Veterans Oasis Park and Zanjero Park, Maricopa County, AZ

September 18, 2015
When I arrived at the small pond northeast of the restrooms and fishing pond at Veterans Oasis Park (VOP), I noted that it was 6:00 a.m.  Yesterday, a birder friend, Susan Fishburn, had seen the American Bittern first reported by Darrel Wilder on 9/16/15, and suggested I walk to the east side of the water for the best view so the sun would be at my back.  Being quite a bit on the short side of tall, I walked up the bank beside the trail to see over the oleanders and other thick shrubs that prevented my penetrating to water’s edge.  I scanned and continued to scan the reeds on the west and south side of the pond several times. 

There!  The American Bittern was within the reeds not out in front but just barely behind the first few. It was in “poised” mode, but still. Its beak was the first thing I noticed, then followed its deep brown stripes down to its belly. I viewed it for a full minute before I saw another bird clinging to a reed to the left of it - the Least Bittern!  It didn’t stay put, but its small size and buff color set it apart from the Green Heron.  When I swung the bins back toward the American Bittern that had been close by, it was gone.  I looked at my watch: 6:10 a.m.  It had been too dark for photos.

There were egrets and a Green Heron on the west side of the pond.  Since I had seen a larger bird (possibly a Black-crowned Night Heron) fly into the corner of “my” side of the pond, I decided to walk over to the west side that did open all the way to the water.  That’s when I spotted Steve and Joan Hosmer walking briskly along the trail, so I stopped and waited for them, knowing they would not like what I was going to tell them.

Since Steve had his spotting scope I stayed with them there for a while hoping the American Bittern would show itself again. A photo would be a "keeper" for this unusual bird.  If it was going to come out again, it was taking its time doing it, so I let Steve and Joan know I would go check the west side of the pond.  They decided to join me since we were able to get to the edge of the water, but the sun had risen too high by then, it was very difficult to see, looking eastward.  So they returned to the east trail to maintain a watch for the Bittern while I continued around the park on its perimeter trail.

Black-tailed Jackrabbits were bopping about on all the trails and into the shrubs as I approached.  I counted nine (9) but that’s conservative!  Walking northward to reach the west-to-east perimeter, two coyotes came strolling toward me but quickly decided to take the next E-W trail that cuts through the middle of the park.  A jogger came out from that trail exclaiming about the coyotes!  [They were too quick for photos]

A residential area lies adjacent to the north-going trail. It was along that spot that I saw House Sparrows and House Finches.  Otherwise, it was all desert and riparian species: Black Phoebe (almost always close to water), Verdin, Curve-billed Thrashers, Abert’s Towhees and Anna’s Hummingbirds.

At the northeast corner, where the trail turned south again, I came upon a much larger lake than the first one.  This was full of egrets, herons, Mallards and Black-necked Stilts.  Two White-faced Ibis were there and I saw a White-fronted Goose fly in.  

Two White-faced Ibis (Black-necked Stilts in foreground)  Too distant, really, for good photo.

Great Egret & Great Blue Heron across the lake

Adult Black-crowned Night Heron

Juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron

Greater White-fronted Goose

Loggerhead Shrike 

Note the green wings on this young or non-breeding plumage White-faced Ibis
WFIB preening; red eye is one ID marker that helps differentiate it from Glossy Ibis

White-faced Ibis

After two hours and three (3) miles of walking the trails at the VOP, I said Good-bye to Steve and Joan (who had not yet seen the American Bittern), and departed for Zanjero Park.  This has turned out to be quite a successful volunteer effort by the Desert Rivers Audubon group.  They created many many burrows (google it; it's not easy) and Burrowing Owls now occupy many of them.

Although a Greater Roadrunner was the first bird I spotted there, I didn't need to walk far to get photo of two Burrowing Owls that didn't spook (I stayed back a bit).


Good-bye to you, too, dear friend.  Thanks for allowing my photographs.

* * *

Boyce Thompson Arboretum SP, Superior, Pinal County, AZ

Monday, September 14, 2015

Why did I visit Boyce Thompson Arboretum (BTA) again so soon?

After having a rare visit by a Kentucky Warbler (KEWA) confirmed at BTA yesterday, I was not going to lay in bed and say, “It’s a needle in a haystack.”  It would be a Life Bird for me should I happen to lay eyes on it, so off I went, making my plan as I drove east after a rainy night.  

In my “sit-on” bucket (has a lid for sitting comfort), I stuffed a raincoat, camera and, more optimistically, clip-on sunglasses. The gate opened slightly before 6 a.m. which enabled me to reach my destination in the Demonstration Garden shortly after 6:00.  Since the Kentucky Warbler is a “skulker”, I chose a spot that appeared to have the same ground cover as in the AZFO photograph posted yesterday and lots of adjacent ground-hugging plants for a bird to hide.  (Arizona Field Ornithologists [AZFO] maintain a site to catalogue photos, recordings, etc. of unusual sightings.)  For 45 minutes I listened and watched patiently at that spot for my “target” bird.  Quite dark in this early hour, several birds came into the trees nearby where I discerned ID by shape, size and behavior. Being able to swivel around 360° on the comfortable seat, I kept my eye on adjacent plant areas, too.

There is a lot of good habitat in the Demo Garden for skulkers, so I moved my bucket to a more secluded spot.  After about 10 minutes, I noticed another birder; he had seen me, too.  When I was ready to move from that spot, I sought out Darrel Wilder, the birder who had observed me. We continued in our own ways to seek out the same bird. It was nice to know more of the Demo Garden would get covered, so I found another sitting spot where I stayed for about 15 minutes.  Wandering through the west end of the garden, then, I walked up to the water feature in the northeast corner to check out that spot.  Darrel was already there!  He had not see the KEWA either, but had come upon an early Lincoln’s Sparrow. He left the area so I sat there for another 15-20 minutes but saw very little and his LISP was a no-show for me.  However, another birder walked past on the entrance trail on the other side of some trees and shrubs. Janine may have seen me, or not. We never did cross paths but continued birding the Demo garden quietly and individually.

Many resident birds were vocal:  Curve-billed Thrasher, Cactus Wren, and Verdin.  Verdin, the tiny acrobatic gray bird with a yellow head, are one of our smallest song birds.  Their security-nests intrigue me. They build nests for both breeding and sleeping with the roosting nest being the smaller of the two.  The male constructs the stick shell while the female does the interior lining.  The nest is not the typical bowl shape of some birds, but is closed at the top and accessed from the bottom or low side. This technique provides security from larger birds that might want to fly in and steal eggs in nesting season.  In summer, the hole on the side of the nest appears to catch the wind for some air conditioning.

The rectangle of sticks is the opening to this Verdin nest

I moved to several other likely spots for the Kentucky Warbler within the Demo Garden before leaving.  My heart beat extra fast when my eyes landed on a warbler in a tree that came close to the description of the “target” but it was one I was too familiar with to call it anything but Townsend’s Warbler. It was gone before I could get a photo but, unfortunately, I didn’t doubt my call.

Before leaving BTA, I walked to the south end of the picnic area where Turkey Vultures (TVs) appeared to be flying in circles that would eventually become “kettles” or columns stretching up toward the clouds. Although my photo doesn’t reveal the red head of the vultures, it does show clearly the two-toned underwing — dark on the front edge; light on the rear edge.

Turkey Vultures gathering to form a kettle

Because there is a hawk that looks similar to the TVs, I always scan these gathering groups in search of it.  Using the camouflage of the TVs (who are scavengers and no threat to small birds that see them), the Zone-tailed Hawk can fly with them until it sees prey.  Suddenly, it leaves the “kettle” surprising some unsuspecting smaller bird or animal.

There were no Zone-tailed Hawks within the gathering vultures, but I spotted one circling from the south toward them.  As it got closer, I managed identification photos.

View of top side of Zone-tailed Hawk as it tilted in flight
View from underneath showing the two-toned wings as well as bands on tail, lacking on TVs

Time flies when I’m birding - no pun intended.  Love it!

* * *

Riparian Preserve at Gilbert Water Ranch, Mesa, Maricopa County, AZ

Saturday, September 12, 2015
Wide awake at 4 a.m., I decided to get up to do some birding at Gilbert Water Ranch, about a twenty-minute drive from my home. Although the place fills up quickly on weekends, I arrived just before dawn with just two other cars in the lot.

A Great Blue Heron on a distant platform looked good in the early-morning light.

About ten minutes later, I saw a different one perched on a light standard and was able to get fairly close to it.

Great Blue Heron
When I walked past it and looked back, I noticed the Great Blue had lifted one foot while it perched! (Reminding me of my balancing exercises!)

Overhead, I heard Canada Geese flying my way as they lifted off a distant pond.

My birding route was haphazard. Many ponds had low water so I checked from the trail and if shorebirds or waterfowl were present, I walked as close as possible.  Some good birds insist on staying beyond photo range, however, so I simply enjoyed the Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs that were hanging out together in a remnant of water in Pond 2.

Although I saw no hawks fly over, an American Kestrel was perched watchfully over the plowed settling ponds.

American Kestrel
Closer to me was an Anna's Hummingbird.

Anna's Hummingbird in a mesquite tree on north shore o Pond 5

Pied-billed Grebe on Pond 6

Residents at Gilbert Water Ranch, Black-crowned Night Herons appear to have had a very successful breeding year.  While four of them were lined up in a row several feet apart, another photographer blocked my view and ability to capture that particular shot. I was fine with getting individual poses when the space became available for me.

Adult Black-crowned Night Heron (note the red eye)

First-year juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron (also showing its red eye)
Every now and again, I'd spot a warbler bopping around in a tree next to a pond. It's always helpful when they peek out from behind the leaves to give me some clues. A Nashville, Yellow and Wilson's Warbler caught my attention as they were busy foraging this morning at various locations.

And, then, there's always the bird that I know I should know and it doesn't "click" for me.

Female Brown-headed Cowbird

People walking dogs, jogging, bicycling and showing up for bird-watching makes this riparian preserve a special place for a lot of people. But when they show up, it's time for me to leave!  I counted 44 species in just under two hours.

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