Lower Salt River: Granite Reef Recreation Area, Mesa, Maricopa County, AZ

Friday, November 6, 2015
After a good night’s sleep, I was up early so decided to visit my favorite Salt River spot to explore some off-trail areas. 

At 7 a.m., the mesquite trees of the picnic area were fairly quiet but flying overhead were flock after flock of Great-tailed Grackles with several Red-winged Blackbirds scattered among them.

Soon, I heard a bird I wanted to pursue. It was coming from the stand of tamarisk trees beyond the first opening in the west fence line. Usually, I shy away from that quadrant because I’ve seen the wild javelina disappear in there. Today, the ground was clear of much underbrush so I managed to find my way through with minimum bushwhacking. Since I had absent-mindedly left the house wearing my soft “indoor” shoes instead of my hikers, this looked like a less muddy way to reach the berm.  

Black-tailed Gnatcatchers gave me the business and were not shy about getting into my face with their scolding “ch ch ch”. Too quick for photos, they were easily identified by their mostly black under-tail as well as their vocalizations.

Felt badly after stepping through a wide spot in a barbed-wire fence that spooked a good number of Gambel’s Quail from the area. Other birds in this thicket included Cactus Wren, Curve-billed Thrasher, Verdin, and Audubon’s Yellow-rumped Warblers. The bird I was pursuing - that I thought was a Gray Flycatcher - was a no-show.  

Also, I couldn’t locate open access to the berm (too many thick tangles), so I walked back toward the picnic area. When I reached a wide path that ran along Bush Highway, I followed it westward and - Voila! Someone had cut the fence so I walked right through a clearing up to the berm. Lots of heavy equipment there gave a clue as to who cut the fence!

Since I was earlier than any workmen, I was able to bird the scraped berm. A Rock Wren gave me a tale of woe as it hopped up to the concrete base of the tall rusted chain-link fence protecting the “canal”. Since one vehicle was marked “Flood Control”, I assume they’re making the water retention area deeper since tall piles of dirt appeared to be waiting to be hauled out. 

While walking the berm, a very loud gunshot made me jump! Having just now researched hunting season for November in AZ, I felt doubly sorry I had disturbed the large covey of well-hidden quail as it is open season for it and doves - saw no doves at all this morning.

Instead of turning around at the end of the berm (and heading back toward that gunshot), I scrambled, instead, toward the river’s dam. Not have my spotting scope along (mainly because it prevents this kind of bushwhacking), it was difficult to discern any special wintering ducks that may have arrived at the distant dam. American Coots were present in large numbers, but across the river, I easily spotted a Great Egret and Black-crowned Night Heron (adults) perched in a tamarisk tree on Tribal Land. 

Several Black Phoebe were calling in and around me so that I was able to actually get a photo.  The Say’s Phoebe, also a flycatcher, perched several times on trees past the barbed-wire fence with its huge NO TRESPASSING sign.

Black Phoebe

Say's Phoebe

As I began my return through an enveloping thicket, another nearby gunshot went BANG! -- setting songbirds flittering and my nerves jangling. The thickness of the tamarisk with fallen limbs and logs is essentially quiet - a hushed environment where songs of birds are easy to pick up. So, I had been very relaxed when the gun went off. One very small bird that emerged was a Hutton’s Vireo.

Out from the thicket, I turned to take a photo of the trail leading into it. It hides birds and people very well. 

Trail into the thicket of trees on west end of recreation area

The more open trail along the Salt River provided several clearings through the reeds for viewing. From these spots, I saw a few ducks, swallows, a Cooper’s Hawk flying down river and into the woods I had just left, two Killdeer chasing each other and then giving chase to two Greater Yellowlegs that had the nerve to fly into their territory.

Also out on the river was a talented Great-tailed Grackle mimicking other birds (phoebe, warblers) and other unknown sounds. Looked as if it was having marvelous fun.

Distant shot of Great-tailed Grackle mimicking other birds

Throughout my adventure, Yellow-rumped Warblers were both vocal and visible. Audubon’s (not Myrtle’s subspecies) were the only kind I saw.
Yellow-Rumped Warbler - Male Audubon's form--its yellow throat somewhat washed out in morning light

Although I had heard a Vermilion Flycatcher earlier in the morning, it didn’t show for me until I was about to get into the car — as if saying, “You can’t leave here without a picture of me!”

As usual, I post it as I see it when it isn't a clear shot; no mistaking this guy!

I had the whole place to myself this morning -- not another person in sight for the entire two hours of explorative birding. For me, that's pure joy!

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