Sunflower, Maricopa County, AZ

November 18, 2015
BRRRRRR!  I could see my breath!  Not my usual desert habitat but forested hills at 3,400’ elevation, twice as high as where I live and it makes a real difference to thin-blooded desert rats.

Birder friend, Jeanne Burns and I started birding along Old Highway 87 in Sunflower at 7:30 a.m. despite the 34° temperature. Bundled in so many layers, we may not have recognized one another had we not driven up together.

As usual, we parked in the pull-off area near the bridge over Sycamore Creek which carries traffic to and from Payson on the Beeline Highway. We had turned on the Old Route 87 with all of its many curves that I still remember from when I first arrived in AZ.

Western Meadowlarks were already serenading us from various perches along a fence while many others were foraging in the frosted meadow on the south side of our “trail” - the old highway. Conservative count was 40; there may easily have been 20 more. It wasn’t an exact count due to the meadowlarks lifting up from time to time before settling in another section of the meadow or, then, perching in a tree to catch some of the rising sun’s warming rays. 

Western Meadowlark
Dark-eyed Juncos (Oregon form) were chipping from the bushes and dropping to the ground to scratch around a bit. Northern Flickers were out and about, flying back and forth above us to the tall, mature Arizona Sycamores on each side of the road.  

We took our time walking, listening, spotting and listing the various bird species. It took us an hour to walk to the half-way point to the dead end and back to the car. From there, we slowly drove the second half of the distance, birding from the car or jumping out for photos of some good sightings that included Western Bluebirds, a Townsend’s Solitaire, a pair of Northern Cardinals and two Phainopepla.

Female Phainopepla - Jeanne's photo

Townsend's Solitaire - Jeanne's photo out the driver's side window

As we neared the cul de sac, I chose to walk the remainder of the short distance while Jeanne parked the car. Wouldn’t you know I’d find a “goodie” — my first Cedar Waxwing of this fall season!

Cedar Waxwing

Jeanne had never walked the distance from the cul de sac to the Ranger Station but we set off by finding some more good birds that included a Black and White Warbler (definitely not a Black-throated Gray), a Juniper Titmouse, a couple Rock Wrens, and a flock of chittering Bushtits.

What Jeanne saw and I didn't would have been an Arizona Year Bird for me. I had mentioned that an American Goldfinch had been reported at Sunflower about a month ago so I was wanting to find out if it was still present.  When I heard a group of Lesser Goldfinches deep in the forest beside the road, I called them in and Jeanne exclaimed about the very striking one! By the time I slid my phone back to its pocket and lifted my binoculars, the whole flock dropped lower toward the forest floor out of sight. After listening to her describe her sighting, I showed her the photo on my phone of a winter-plumaged male American Goldfinch -- very striking compared to the Lesser's. So, SHE got MY desired bird ...grrrrr.  [Payback for my seeing the Cedar Waxwing without her.]

As we neared the Ranger Station, we found Western Scrub Jay (one in the far distance and one within the picnic area on the station grounds), and a brilliantly feathered Townsend’s Warbler, too quick for photos, but gorgeous views as it moved hither and yon between live oaks. Pygmy Nuthatches were present as I ate my lunch.

Western Scrub Jay
Jeanne, hiding in the bushes at the Ranger Station 
On our return walk, we were able to get photos of the native Western Red-tailed Hawk, so light we could barely see its belly band. (On some, it's missing altogether.)

Western Red-tailed Hawk
Although we logged in only one-way distances for eBird, we walked about five easy miles at a very slow pace, having shed several layers of clothes along the way to enjoy temperatures in the high 50s.

While we were in the area, I shared a few other nearby birding locations with Jeanne before we headed back to the desert. It’s so easy to devote nine hours to birding, especially when surrounded by autumn leaves.

Jeanne took this photo of me during our early birding along Old Hwy 87.

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