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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