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.

* * *

No comments:

Post a Comment