Saguaro Lake - Butcher Jones Beach area, Maricopa County, AZ

October 22, 2015
The invigorating temperature of 58° at 7:15 got me off to a good start. First bird I saw on the north side of the overflow parking area when I pulled in was a Crissal Thrasher - not usually on my daily checklist. My binoculars and camera were in the trunk!  Dang!  

Butcher Jones Beach, at a cove of Saguaro Lake, is surrounded by rocks and desert hills with washes — great habitat for a variety of birds. And with that first sighting, I quickly parked the car, grabbed my gear and walked slowly into the desert north of the lot. Birds…here…there…everywhere.

Rock Wren showed up quickly followed by Black-tailed Gnatcatchers that were abundant today. A small covey of Gambel’s Quail lifted into the air with their “spik”call notes, flying just high enough to pass over the embankment east of me and down out of sight.

The tinkling sound of the Black-throated Sparrow was present, but it took quite a while to come face to face to with one. Cactus Wrens (our largest wren) were out and about and not shy.  

Cactus Wren

Best sighting in that area was a Willow Flycatcher, perhaps a bit late in leaving.

Willow Flycatcher

But that was followed by BIRD DRAMA.  I spotted a Greater Roadrunner going along the ridge of the embankment well beyond where I stood.  Suddenly, a raptor lifted up from below the hill and swooped the roadrunner who accelerated quickly. The Cooper’s Hawk continued to fly out over the desert so the roadrunner ran for cover down to plants and shrubs on the desert floor.

Next, I birded the cove area and followed the walking trail to Peregrine Point.  It’s not a long walk but birds interrupted me so often, it took me over an hour to bird that short bit.

This Great-tailed Grackle was down in the edge of the marsh reeds.  Note the plastic wrap the grackle tossed before carrying its “breakfast bonanza” to a different spot. 

The light on this Great-tailed Grackle was gorgeous.


Farther out in the cove was a Double-crested Cormorant which can be distinguished from the more common Neotropic Cormorant by its orange lore, bill and skin at the base of the bill. In contrast, the Neotropic is smaller, sleeker, longer-tailed and has a V-shaped white border on its chin-patch.

Double-crested Cormorant

As I neared Peregrine Point, swallows filled the air. From what I observed, I estimated about 8 Violet-green Swallows and 10 Northern Rough-winged.  Today was a camera-practice day.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Violet-green Swallow

A very difficult bird to photograph well is the Black-tailed Gnatcatcher because it’s always moving. I consider myself lucky when I see the bird this clearly.

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher

Despite its name, there is some white on the underside of its tail but not nearly as much as on that of the Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher.  Making use of a failed photo shot, here is the under-tail pattern of the Black-tailed Gnatcatcher.

With this, my favorite gnatcatcher, I got lucky today and managed several full photos like this:

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher

As I returned toward the picnic area, Lindsay and her Dad, Dick, were coming my way. As usual, we compared notes before continuing our separate ways. It’s always fun to come upon other birders in the field.

The most unusual sighting I had was a very good one for me.  I heard a bird sound I didn’t recognize and tracked it down to a Canyon Wren. This bird has a beautiful cascading song, but its call is very short and buzzy. It was poking around the ground at the base of some rocks northwest of the picnic area and all my photos were of its back end.

Here is one I took earlier in the year.

Canyon Wren

A satisfying day in the field is a good thing!

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Three Stops along the Lower Salt River, Maricopa County, AZ

Thursday, October 15, 2015
Three stops along the Salt River this morning delivered 36 good species of birds for Julie Clark and I to feast our eyes on.

Stop #1:  At Granite Reef we dipped on the rare bird I heard on Monday (Red-breasted Nuthatch) but picked up a brilliant Vermilion Flycatcher and a couple Marsh Wrens.

Stop #2:  The pond east of Granite Reef (Moorhen City Marsh) is well named for its major population of Common Gallinule (that used to be called moorhens).

Commotion at this east pond was loud but with tall reeds blocking our view, it was difficult to see what was causing the disruption. Alarm calls were rising from the reeds.

By the time we reached the dirt causeway created by the monsoons of 2014, we could see both east and west on this backwater tributary and the commotion had settled. Mostly, we were looking at Common Gallinule (adults and juvies) as well as some American Coots. Vegetation had grown on the causeway since my last visit so clear photos through it were hard to come by. Julie counted 12 Common Gallinule and 9 American Coots within throwing distance of us. Many more live within the reeds.  

Juvenile Common Gallinule (foreground) with adult male (background)

Juvenile & Adult Common Gallinule
American Coots are found on so many bodies of water, they're more familiar to most of us.  The Gallinules are sleeker and have a racing stripe on their sides. In these photos it looks more like a feathered stripe. The male has a red frontal plate and bill, tipped with yellow. The juvie is a bland gray brown color; its bill showing a white tip.

Just as we decided to leave, a Cooper’s Hawk flew over scaring from the tall marsh grasses a flock of suddenly vocal Yellow-headed Blackbirds. The Cooper’s had probably made a pass upon our arrival, too.

Stop #3:  Already very happy with our birding luck, we continued on to see what we might find flying or perched or screaming at Coon Bluff. First good sighting there, before we even got out of the car, was doing none of those things: it was walking!

In addition to the Roadrunner we saw driving in, there were two in the parking lot so I stopped in the road before entering, shut off the engine, got out and snapped pictures. This is the second time I’ve found them hanging out on the edges and in the parking lot at Coon Bluff. It’s a good year for seeing them out and about. It wasn’t until a truck drove in and passed me to park in the lot that the Roadrunner disappeared into the desert.

This Roadrunner, very close to the car, went over to Julie's side!

Walking the dirt road, then, toward the bluff, we noted that the gate blocking traffic was open. This usually happens when a licensed vendor brings kayaks and people to the river. We could see a big tent ahead of us but fortunately got caught up in the birds around us. 

After seeing Phainopepla, Gila Woodpecker, Northern Cardinal and some White-crowned Sparrows, I called Julie’s attention to the bird I was looking at right along our trail.  Foraging on a mesquite branch close to us, it was blue-gray above, rufous below, had a very pointy bill and when we finally saw its head, it had the combo black eye line and long white eyebrow. YAY! The Red-breasted Nuthatch!! Maybe it flew here from Granite Reef. Or, maybe there are several around the river sites. I don’t really know but I’m delighted we got on this one. Too active for a photo, it eventually flew from the mesquite on the left to one on the right, before taking off into the forest.  Ahhhh. Our good birding day continued!

By now, we were closing in on that big tent that held a lot of people some of whom were children of varying ages, plus a couple dogs. Their big red truck was parked there so I assumed they carried a permit.

We focused on the bluff and the river. While I found no Bald Eagles on the bluff, Julie came up with a tiny bird on a pebbly island in the river. It wasn’t a sandpiper; it looked like a Rock Wren to me but I took a photo for a closer look. Sure enough, the magnified photo showed a Rock Wren. By the time we tried to re-find it, it had flown to the bluff where we could hear it calling.  Later we came upon another Rock Wren on the sandy bank by the river under a tamarisk tree. Anomalies like this (ROWR in the sand?) are as much fun for me as finding a new bird.

Just then, a red car drove past us in the sand. Whaatt?? With the gate open, some guy decided to drive his family right to river’s edge for some photos. Not cool! He was still there twenty minutes later when we passed his parked vehicle to continue birding the east side of that area.

Always on the alert for Bald Eagles along the river, Julie spied some white birds soaring very very high above. Too white for the BAEA, it turned out to be two Great Egrets circling at heights I’d never seen before. So, I can chalk up another new and irregular bird behavior!

While we were looking at them, we spied a Black Vulture circling below the egrets. We hadn’t seen a single Turkey Vulture yet and a Black Vulture is harder to come by, so we were thrilled with that sighting as well.

A few Violet-green Swallows over the river grew to a flock of at least 26 while we listened to the rattle of a Belted Kingfisher that we would soon see along the river’s bank. 

Lindsay Story and her father (Dick) were walking our way so we compared notes. With her spotting scope, Lindsay found a hawk up on the bluff but none of us could come up with a definitive ID from the rear view it provided: very dark and large bird overall with some mottling — probably a Red-tailed.

Julie and I continued walking through the mesquite bosque back toward the car.  (Lindsay had entered from that direction.)  Bewick’s Wren, Gilded Flickers and Vermilion Flycatchers delighted us along the way.

Until next time, here’s lookin’ at you.

Spotted Sandpiper

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First Bird Walk of the Season at Lost Dutchman State Park, Pinal County, AZ

October 14, 2015
"High Season" in the desert - when snowbirds (people) begin to arrive - usually brings at least comfortable weather. Temperatures are supposed to cool down a bit.

But not today!  With six participants, three of whom were smart home-schooled children with binoculars, we took our time to provide good looks at desert species new to them.  

Since I rarely take photos when I lead a walk, the ones included here have been taken at Lost Dutchman earlier this year.

Male Gambel's Quail in Spring
Numerous quail at different locations delighted the young birders who became adept at identifying them when they crossed in front of us or ran beneath trees and shrubs in the desert.

Even the small Black-tailed Gnatcatchers were evident to them when they flitted around in nearby shrubs.  Today's male gnatcatchers were in their basic gray plumage - minus the black cap feathers of mating season.

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher
The Black-throated Sparrow was not seen as easily as the Gnatcatcher because it hugs the low thick parts of shrubs and grasses. It perched up once for a good look.

Black-throated Sparrow
From my perspective, it was good to see the Phainopepla had returned for the winter after going to cooler places during the hot months. As leader, there's not a better bird to capture the attention of "newbies". Too distant to spot its red eye, the Phainopepla did give us several good looks from its usual high perch.

Male Phainopepla (Silky Flycatcher)
Birds quieted down after 10:00 just as we began to wilt in the 85-90° direct sunlight.  In some shade near our cars, we used the LDSP Bird Check List so the participants could remember what they saw on this date.

Jamie, Sarah, Sam, Bryn, Shea, Myka

A fun day in the desert for all of us!

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Granite Reef Rec Area along the Salt River, Maricopa County, AZ

October 12, 2015
A Five-Wren Day!  I didn't intend to blog today's birding. I often skip local trips, but it turned out quite nicely. (Rock, House, Marsh, Bewick's and Cactus)

Getting out from the car quietly, my ears and eyes were already alert to the birds and other sounds: the "pik" of Ladder-backed Woodpecker overhead; horses whinnying as they crossed the river upstream out of sight; Gila Woodpecker's voice as it flew into the picnic area from the south side of the road; and Great-tailed Grackles, noisily active having completed their molt and wearing new tail feathers.

The quiet bird caught my attention at the tippy-top of a mesquite close to the river. It was fly-catching and returning to its same perch so I tried for some photos with the morning sun lighting it up.

Vermilion Flycatcher (male)

Several Great-tailed Grackles were joined by a few Red-winged Blackbirds as they foraged human left-overs around the picnic tables.  The Grackles won the prize: dinner roll.

Because I heard a call of what would be a rare bird there, I headed first to the east-side trail but could not find a Red-breasted Nuthatch. It's not really its habitat or elevation but when I came upon Dale Clark exiting the east trail, he said one had been located at Granite Reef a year or two ago. It had stayed just two days, as he recalled.  Dale continued westward, as I went east where a male Cardinal showed itself and a House Wren called several times.
Out in the river, there were two Great Blue Herons, two Killdeer chasing each other, a female Belted Kingfisher with its rufous belly band, a few American Coots and a single Ruddy Duck.  The first big white "bird" I thought I saw in mid-stream turned out to be a "Big Gulp" - if those plastic cups from gas stations are still called that.

When I saw this paddle-boarder, I began to wonder if I could do that wearing binoculars and my camera. He quietly passed by waterfowl that was beyond my ID range.

After returning to the picnic area again and discovering many more Yellow-rumped Warblers, I took time to re-acquaint myself with their ID marks since they'll be spending some time here. In the process, I also found two Ruby-crowned Kinglets that will also grow in numbers as more arrive.

Over in the "migrant trap" of brushy trees (tamarisk, mesquite and cottonwoods) between the picnic area and west-side trail, I managed to find a Pacific-slope Flycatcher, two Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and lots more Yellow-rumped Warblers.

Up on the very dry berm and parched water retention basin, a Rock Wren perched on a pole and proceeded to act like a flycatcher. That took me by surprise, so I snapped a photo and did ascertain on my computer that it was a Rock Wren. It had also done its "dippy do" thing that confirmed its ID for me in the field.

At the end of the berm, who should I see but Dale climbing up to its top. He had walked all the way to the dam along the river and had seen some neat birds. Together, we'd see a few more including a Sharpie (Sharp-shinned Hawk), Bewick's Wren, Black-throated Sparrows and Anna's Hummingbird. Back at the picnic area, I picked up several calling Marsh Wrens, and he pointed out the chip of the Song Sparrow in the marsh grasses.

As we stood there looking toward the river and listening in the marsh, I heard a POP like a gun going off. I think it's now dove season, but that sounded very close by. Next thing, we see a drone heading downstream about 50 feet above the water. Perhaps the sound was its launching?  Who's doing this?  Hunters?  

After seeing a Red-shafted Northern Flicker fly in quickly and out just as quickly, I headed for the car as Dale continued toward the east trail. 

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

October 9, 2015
To check out the birds at Gilbert Water Ranch this morning, I invited Sharon O. from my community to join me. Although she had never birded before, she handled my old binoculars with ease and enjoyed our time there -- including a re-route due to the east gate being closed.

When we started birding at 6:45 a.m., the first birds visible in the dawning hour were numerous white birds at the southern edge of Pond 7. In front of about a dozen of those Great and Snowy Egrets stood a very big thick white bird that even Sharon recognized.  "Is that a pelican?"  Yes! An American Pelican! -- big as life but too dark for photos. We lucked out that it was still present when we returned. So, I snapped a few distant photos.

White Pelican stretching its wing, tipped in black

A female Great-tailed Grackle looked stunning in the rising sunlight.

Female Great-tailed Grackle
Several American Avocets were scattered from pond to pond including this one, shared with a Neo-tropic Cormorant.

American Avocet, basic plumage

Not all winged creatures were birds.  Dragonflies fascinate me and Sharon was awed by its translucent wings

Herons overhead in nearby trees tend to wig me out. Yet, it was this bird staring at me from its perch on a tree limb in the woods around Greenbelt Lake in Maryland many years ago -- that piqued my curiosity enough to make me buy a bird book. I've been birding sporadically ever since, so I took a photo of this similar one at the Water Ranch this morning.

It was another comfortable weather morning to be out among the ponds and the birds.  As usual, I was ready to leave as more dog-walkers and bicyclers arrived.  Temperature had risen from the high 60s to the 80s so it was time. Great and Snowy Egrets as well as Black-crowned Night Herons and Great Blues added to our enjoyment. I spotted only one warbler, an Orange-crowned, and checked off a Horned Grebe at Pond 5. 

As we were leaving on the east trail, a Red-tailed Hawk perched on the light standard by the restroom. It seemed curious about having its photo taken.

Red-tailed Hawk
Having Sharon along enjoying the "process" of birding was fun in and of itself. 

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Land of the Saguaro - Lost Dutchman State Park (campground area)

October 8, 2015

Maturing Saguaro

A mature saguaro (suh-whar-o) can grow to 70 feet tall and live for 75 to 100 years. It's found only in the Sonoran Desert. It can take up to 50 years for a saguaro to produce its first arm. This big cactus gets its start with the help of a "nurse tree" - a larger, faster growing spreading tree that can provide shade and wind protection to an emerging sprout of a saguaro.  Saguaros that grow without arms are often called "spears". Below, you can see several saguaro that have used the same palo verde tree to get their start in life. Since the saguaro live so long, it's likely that these will outlive or break down their nurse tree.

Birds find it perfectly all right to perch on its needles. 

Gila Woodpecker (male) using its tail sideways for balance as it perches on the prickly top of a saguaro

Distant American Kestrel also perched on a saguaro
Although the Black-throated Sparrows were very quiet today, the state park is loaded with them.  Below is one on a seriously sharp cholla cactus.

It's rare that these dapper sparrows sit still long enough to be photographed together.

It's also rare to find a Common Raven in a position to be photographed. At Lost Dutchman, I usually hear and see them flying overhead. Today, one was so involved in eating something on the ground that I managed a marginal photo of it in bad light.

Note the Common Raven's short nasal bristles on the top of its bill.

There's nothing I like more than "bird drama" when I'm out in the field. Today it was provided by a cocky Cactus Wren that tried to drive a Loggerhead Shrike from its perch on top of a palo verde tree. If you know anything about a shrike, that is a dangerous undertaking. It can carry prey in its feet or its bill (or both) and despite its size can handle more than large insects in the air. By perching up high, it can drop quickly to its prey with one good pounce. 

The Cactus Wren kept going toward the shrike which gave it the evil eye, plus a spread tail and scolding call.
Ended up with wren (well-behaved at this point) perched below the shrike!

The only other drama was when Lois, who was birding with me, called out, "Hey! Look at this!"  Only the second time I've seen an owl while birding Lost Dutchman over the past several years, this was a gem.  We stayed on the campsite from which Lois had spotted it and took photos as it appeared to us through all the branches, still very obviously a Great Horned Owl!

So, after several days of showers, cool weather prevailed again this morning with a light breeze as we enjoyed a fabulous day with the birds at the state park.

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Lost Dutchman State Park, Apache Junction, Pinal County, AZ

October 6, 2015
Although it rained early, by the time I reached Cholla Day Use area in Lost Dutchman State Park, it had stopped. Despite clouds overhead, the air seemed clear. Moisture remained on jojoba and other plant leaves. Puddles were sufficient that I didn't spend any time waiting at the drip faucet to observe birds that might come in for a drink; they could find it elsewhere in today's desert.

Sun slipping through the clouds giving light and shadows
Surprised to hear a Rock Wren close to the beginning of the trail, I didn't spot it until I reached the intersection of Jacob's Crosscut trail. It sat up for me on a dead cactus which is not its normal behavior; it's usually very close to the ground. Two hikers came down from the Treasure Loop trail and inquired about it "pretty song".

Rock Wren with morning sun lighting up its belly
Because LDSP Ranger Diana Bishop had contacted me over a week ago about a Gray Catbird she had seen at the water feature in the residential area, I used playback to see what kind of response I would get out in the desert.  Got an immediate response from this Curve-billed Thrasher that flew in quickly, perched close behind me and started singing its song, including its well known "wheet-wheet".

Birds were feeding at this hour, so I took photos of the two major woodpeckers at this state park. Below are two photos of a Gilded Flicker that don't show its brown back with narrow black bars. When it flies, you see much yellow "gold" beneath its wings - thus, its name, "Gilded". Sometimes the "gold" also shows near the tail when it's perched but my eyes aren't seeing it in these photos.  Both flickers show a white rump when flying.

Note the cinnamon-colored head and large black breast spot that differ from Northern Flicker.

The Gila Woodpecker below looks very different than the flickers starting with its black-and-white barred back and rump. It's forehead, head, nape and belly are grayish brown.  The male can be told by its red crown on gray head. It shows white wing patches when it flies.

Gila Woodpecker (male)

Although I came across only a small group of White-crowned Sparrows, their numbers will increase as they continue to migrate back to this area for the winter. They were busy eating and allowed me to get fairly close for photos.

White-crowned Sparrow - above and below

Nineteen species in an hour and a half at Lost Dutchman SP is not a bad day!

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