Agua Fria National Monument (EZ Crossing site) and Watson Lake, Prescott, Yavapai County, AZ

Monday, November 23, 2015
Although I’m surrounded with rich birding spots close to where I live and visit them often, I’ve discovered that birding in more distant and unfamiliar locations gives an “edge” to my learning curve.

Today, I hooked up with an avid birder from the Prescott area whom I met during a recent week-long Road Scholar Hopi Village cultural visit in Northern Arizona. Judy Couch met me at Cordes Junction  (I-17 & Rt. 69) where I transferred my gear and winter jackets to her car for our birding adventures. Temperature was about twenty (20) degrees cooler than most mornings in the desert: 34° at this higher elevation of 3700 feet.

As I do with birding friends who visit me, Judy shared one of her nearby “gems” 
along the Agua Fria River at a place called EZ Crossing within the extensive national monument. A bit early with our start time of 7:20, the sun was just beginning to hit the cottonwoods, mesquite and shrubs. White-crowned Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos were vocal as we started walking the narrow trail along the river that soon turned too muddy to continue; they’ve had a lot of rain. Alternatively, we walked the dirt road where we could see a bit more bird activity as the sun continued its upward journey.

Two significant sightings for me were familiar desert birds that I don’t see every day. GRAY FLYCATCHER challenged me a bit before I named it since we were looking at its back in morning light. Most birds this morning were looking mostly gray! It’s shape was familiar and I had picked out is two light wing stripes before it proved its identity. Judy gave me a look of “How do you know that?”  “Watch its long tail”, I suggested. Sure enough, it again wagged its tail gently downward like a phoebe - a telling behavior that separates it from other empidonax flycatchers such as Dusky or Willow Flycatchers which are closer to its large size. (Gray Flycatcher It’s the largest “empid” at six inches.) Too early for photos, so I’m posting ones that I took earlier this year near the Salt River.

Gray Flycatcher - above and below
Front view that shows its bi-colored bill (dark top;yellow under)

Second good sighting had me stumped although when we finally confirmed what we were looking at, Judy reminded me that I had called it by name immediately. Second-guessing myself, it suddenly didn’t seem large enough to be a thrasher; it looked more like a sparrow. And, that bugged me because I’ve been trying to get a handle on knowing all the sparrows and their field marks. Since it was sitting up in the sunlight, I took photos that, when I zoomed in, confirmed my initial recognition of its facial characteristics. It was a SAGE THRASHER! Its long tail was hidden from sight and it was hunkered down instead of “sitting tall”. Size-wise, it’s a small thrasher.

Sage Thrasher
Strangely, I seldom see the Sage Thrasher where I live but it's common in its restricted desert habitat that doesn’t include Phoenix neighborhoods where we enjoy the ubiquitous Curve-billed Thrasher.

Next spot we visited was Watson Lake Riparian Area. This, I thought, was familiar territory but as it turned out, we didn’t walk the riparian section. Instead we took the Peavine Trail (a 5.5 mile rail trail) that led beyond the riparian area to the south side of Watson Lake. Sharing the wide dirt trail on this beautiful clear, sunny calm day were hikers and bikers. Judy and I took turns carrying her spotting scope which was helpful in viewing the waterfowl below us and across the lake. It also confirmed that all the Gulls were Ring-billed without a Year-Bird Bonaparte’s among them.

A young Northern Harrier looked very striking in its very rufous plumage as it flew over the lake perusing what might be “taken” from the water.

Even when we went off the Peavine trail to a foot path suggested to us by another birder (Steve) to observe some small coves, we were still too far away for photos. But we found the Hooded Mergansers he had seen (3 males; 3 females) and, eventually, the female Common Goldeneye. Photos from my files of these handsome birds are below.

Male Hooded Merganser
Female Hooded Merganser
Female Common Goldeneye trails the male and a juvenile male

As we returned along the lake trail, Judy called a Myrtle Warbler. I had casually chalked it up to our usual Audubon’s “Yellow-rumped Warbler” but, indeed, it had quite a white throat, so I documented it for submission to e-Bird.

Myrtle Yellow-rumped Warbler

Time disappeared quickly with our 3-mile round trip walk out along Watson Lake and back. Today, we birded over five hours and saw 41 species. I left the area early enough to avoid getting caught in commuter traffic and was able to return home by 3:30 p.m, avoiding the thickness of it. 
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