Birding with a group of friends in 3 Arizona Counties: Navajo, Gila and Maricopa — a FOUR-WREN DAY!

Saturday, December 19th:
Having never birded with Magill Weber and Chris Rohrer before, I was looking forward to Magill’s projected adventure to the small town of Heber on top of the Mogollon Rim in Navajo County. Gordon Karre, the driver for the trip, was a birding friend whose expertise I respected and sometimes relied upon. From our Scottsdale meeting spot at 5:30 a.m., we headed north to cold, cold Heber. 

Magill had spoken to Jerry, the man who found our target bird, a CAROLINA WREN, at his feeder several days ago, so she knew exactly where to go. After parking in the lot at the Heber Senior Center and changing into heaver coats and pulling out our toques, we began birding at 7:54 a.m. at a brisk 37°. (Elevation: 6600’) As we lined up along the dirt road directly opposite the storage center bird feeders, we saw one junco after the other. Then, a smaller bird, by the tire of a parked truck, rang a bell for me. The Carolina Wren, a backyard bird for me in Hampton, VA, was standing in profile: its obvious size and shape, plus its slightly decurved bill, reddish-brown back, white eyebrow, buffy flanks and raised tail gave us our target bird immediately!  As soon as we identified the bird, it flew before we could take a photo, but it had been photographed two days ago by Eric Hough at that location proving it was in fact a Carolina Wren.

We spent 45 unsuccessful minutes trying to relocate the wren after it flew over our heads and into the neighborhood. Then, we heard Pinyon Jays and turned our attention to the adjacent fields.  Our count of 100 Pinyon Jays may be low; the fields were full of them feeding on the ground, flying around in small flocks, landing in the bare trees. Since we were at a fenced property, the jays remained quite a distance from us but I managed a few photos.

Pinyon Jays in foreground foraging in open field
Pinyon Jay 
After leaving a 40-pound bag of black oil sunflower seeds for Jerry who announced the sighting of the CARWR and allowed visitors, we decided to bird our way back home.  

Our first stop was at Woods Canyon Lake where the road to the lake was closed due to snow but the restroom parking lot was accessible but also full of snow and ice. 

Second stop was my favorite of the day: Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery a bit north of Payson. There was some snow around (elevation 6,500’) but it was more protected by trees than the Heber site that felt so bitingly cold. Plus, when two perched Bald Eagles were the first birds seen as we pulled into the parking lot, I got excited about other good possibilities. The eagles were perched above a pond full of large trout!  The fish hatchery is known for its American Dippers and Eric Hough had recently reported two Pacific Wrens there.

Adult Bald Eagles keeping watch on holding pond full of very large trout

The adults were also looking after their 3rd-year eagle. One flew very low over it when we spotted it on our way out and stopped for photos. Gordon got a photo of this bird lifting off in flight that is absolutely spectacular. He posted it on Facebook and he blogs at:
3rd-year Bald Eagle seen as we drove out of the hatchery.

Front to rear: Chris, Magill, Gordon
Visitor's Center at Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery
The American Dippers, very active in the creek, fascinated us with their behavior. Not only were they moving from rocks to the edge of the creek, they would fly up to the rather large pipe sending water back into the creek as a forceful waterfall! They hopped about on the rocks, they swam (a membrane protects their eyes when underwater). After enjoying the dippers for a while, we turned our attention to the Pacific Wren (recently separated from Winter Wren by the American Birding Association as a separate species). A Winter Wren is lighter in color than this more russet-colored Pacific species.

Pacific Wren liked the protection of the sticks

So, I kept taking pictures of the sticks - wow!

The Pacific Wren marked Chris’s 700th Life Bird!  So, Magill stamped out “700” in the snow while Chris posed next to the benchmark number.

Celebration of Chris's 700th LIFE BIRD
My best photos ever of an American Dipper:

American Dipper standing on the top of a little fall of water

American Dipper swimming 
American Dipper bathing

After such climactic birding at the fish hatchery, we also stopped at Payson’s Green Valley Park where we spotted a hybrid male Eurasian x America Wigeon showing characteristics of both: faint rusty cheeks, faint green on face, very faded crown stripe.

Hybrid Eurasian x American Wigeon in foreground next to American Wigeon

Still jazzed by our birding successes, we stopped at Sunflower along the Beeline Highway as we neared home. Although we hadn’t planned to walk all the way to the Ranger Work Station, we did and collected 33 quality bird species along the way. (Northern Pygmy Owl - heard distinctly calling from the north-side hill above Sycamore Creek; Juniper and Bridled Titmice; Brown Creeper; two of our four wrens, House & Rock; Spotted & Canyon Towhee; Cassin’s Finch and I heard, but didn’t see, the American Goldfinch)…my third Arizona Year Bird of the trip. And, just one of the 68 species I managed to see today.

A simply awesome day with good birding friends!

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