Needle Rock and Box Bar Recreation Areas along the Verde River, north of Rio Verde, Maricopa County, AZ

Friday, January 29th:
Felt like birding northeast of Phoenix this morning, so I had contacted two birder friends, Susan Fishburn and Glenda Jones to join me. It seemed like it had been a very long time since I had last visited this Tonto National Forest recreation area.

Located along the Wild and Scenic Verde River, a critical flyway for migrating birds, Needle Rock contains varied habitat. But as any birder knows, when water is available, birds will be present. And we saw some good ones!

Verde River due east of parking lot

The first birds spotted were four Canvasbacks (two males; two females) swimming in a quiet area around the base of some of the monolithic rocks that have uplifted there.

Not the friendly type, they turned and swam away from us - definitely wild ducks

Several Common Mergansers were swimming in a more distant spot around the rocks,but the drake was somewhat near "iffy" camera range as shown below.

Common Merganser - male
Two Black Phoebes were calling frequently and hawking insects from the air. At that point, we did not locate the rare Eastern Phoebe that continues in the willows and cottonwoods bordering the open area just northeast of the parking area.

So, we walked south along the full-flowing Verde (an important river for our watershed in the desert) until blocked by fallen limbs. We were hearing and seeing birds as we left the shoreline and continued on a slightly more interior path that led to a mesquite grove. 

Note the clumps of mistletoe in the mesquite trees below. Although mistletoe is a parasite that penetrates the tree branches to nourish itself, it is the favored nesting and dining spot of the Phainopepla. Of course, the host tree's growth is stunted and parts of it may die off.

Very few Phainopepla were present today but you can see photos of them in previous blogs.

I kept going off the main path to check out habitat closer to the river and was glad Glenda followed on the one near the washout. One of our best birds of the day was scratching around on the ground: a Crissal Thrasher.

Crissal Thrasher - photos by Glenda
Aside from its voice, its best ID markers are its bill (much longer than Curve-billed Thrasher) and its very dark vent or under tail feathers.
We followed the trail to the next developed area and then returned to the parking lot
Fortunately, this Gray Flycatcher dipped its tail for a positive ID

When we returned to our starting point, we meandered around the willows and cottonwood  border between an inlet and what may be beach in summertime, but is now a very weedy sandy open space. We HEARD THE BIRD! Before long, we also saw it!

Eastern Phoebe in Arizona! - a continuing rarity at Needle Rock.  Photo by Glenda Jones.
Babs and Glenda - before leaving Needle Rock Rec Area
With an early-morning start, lunch was on our mind so we slowly retraced our miles just a short distance to Box Bar Recreation Area owned by the City of Rio Verde with picnic tables available.

As we birded the area, we saw two separate Greater Roadrunners.


Also located along the Verde River, Box Bar proved very birdy, too. When we split up to bird the grassy lawn of the premises, Glenda spotted and got photos of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, another rarity for the area.

Note the red throat that goes up to the beak and is fully outlined by black feathers, unlike RNSA
Even though I saw a familiar bird, it is definitely early in the year to see a Broad-billed Hummingbird. It was on a shrub at the top of the riverbank just over the fenced border of the lawn (NE section) when I spotted the brilliant blue throat and underparts of the bird.
Immediately, I looked for its slightly decurved red bill tipped with black - Yes! Then it spread its tail making it look very large. As soon as I reached for the camera, the Broad-billed hummer flew to another mesquite and possibly out of the yard. We never relocated it. But with the sun highlighting its deep blue feathers, I was treated to a memorable look at a Broad-billed Hummingbird.

Broad-billed Hummingbird; from my file 2014

Babs and Susan

Since our meeting place was Denny's in Fountain Hills, we took the time to see what might be on its lake around the fountain. Most unusual was the Eared Grebe, but I don't recall ever having seen seven (7) Black-crowned Night Herons in a tree there before!

Eared Grebe - photo by Glenda

Having seen 56 total species, including three rarities (Eastern Phoebe, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Broad-billed Hummingbird), we were all thrilled with our birding venture that started at 38°F and ended at 68°F.

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Riparian Preserve at Gilbert Water Ranch, Maricopa County, AZ

Wednesday, January 27th:
Arriving earlier than our specified meeting time, I was able to watch the Canada Geese lift off at first light from the various basins of the Water Ranch in flocks of 12-20 birds each.  Flying that way, I counted 130 of them before adding the few that stayed behind for a total of 138 today.

We started birding on the east trail when Lois Lorenz and Julie Clark arrived promptly at 7:30 a.m. The Verdin’s spring song was music to my ears; it had been absent all winter. That “spring” was in the air became apparent with most species pairing up and/or chasing one another through the trees. A House Sparrow gave us pause as it mated in what I would describe as “mallard” style - holding its mate down driving her beak into the ground. It definitely lacked the flair of most mating song birds where the female selects its mate, then stands ready for the male to alight.

The Water Ranch was super awesome with birds today. Even though we spotted 64 different species in four hours, there were many birds we didn’t see or identify. But what a joy to find the ones we did!

Juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron tucked into a flowering tamarisk; rising sunlight

In the shadows of brush cover beside the trail, Julie spotted the Spotted Towhee

With six ponds (or basins to hold treated wastewater), birds seemed to be everywhere. Not only did we see the young Black-crowned Night Heron above, there were ten (10) adults tucked into trees along each pond.

Mature Black-crowned Night Heron -- one of ten seen today at various ponds

One of my favorite shorebirds is the American Avocet, a long-legged sandpiper, mostly white with wide black stripes and a neck and head that turn from winter gray to cinnamon breeding plumage in springtime.

American Avocets in basic (winter) plumage. Females have sharper turned up bill than males.                 
Either a juvenile or male getting its breeding plumage
Great Egret showing breeding plumage feathers
Hooded Merganser
 At the Water Ranch, we've learned to look not only at the ponds and in the trees but up in the sky and tall utility poles for raptors. Today, Lois found this juvenile Peregrine Falcon waay up high. The stripes on its underparts rather than horizontal bars indicates its youth; a mature Peregrine will show horizontal bands.

Dark mustache helps ID this fast and powerful bird.
Same Peregrine preening with stripes more delineated
In one of the dry basins (some basins have some water; some dry grasses or mudflats), we saw three species of egrets: Great, Snowy and Cattle. While the Great Egret is usually seen closer to water, this one is hunting for small voles or rats in the dried up portion of this basin.

Note the elongated neck, dark legs (with mud on) and long yellow bill
The Cattle Egret is the smallest of the three species, just slightly smaller than the Snowy that has a black bill.
Cattle Egret: note thick neck; steeper forehead, shorter yellow bill and lighter legs than Great Egret (above)
[Rather poor photo as it was very far out in the field but I liked the contrast of the two out there]
Male Belted Kingfisher working Pond #5

The best sighting for me today was the male Northern Harrier (raptor) that flew into the dry part of one of the basins where it spread out its wings.  That fascinated me until I realized it was probably a hunting technique because it leaped up into the air and down on its prey.
After eating, it perched in normal posture and stayed there for some time.

Northern Harrier with wings outstretched
Northern Harrier pouncing
Northern Harrier with one morsel eaten

To have such an exquisite birding habitat within a twenty-minute drive is precious. I go there often and sometimes, like today, I blog about it.

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Tres Rios Overbank Wetlands (permit required), Maricopa, Arizona, US

Friday, January 22nd:
This morning, I set off for yet another wastewater treatment plant that creates marshes, basins and ponds of water for waterfowl with its treated effluent. Putting it out for its final treatment through the ground to join the Gila River, this effluent wetland provides critical habitat for animals, raptors, songbirds, fish and waterfowl in our corner of the Sonoran desert.  Today’s journey took me and birder friend, Glenda, to Tres Rios (the confluence of the Salt, Gila and Agua Fria Rivers).

With Bill Grossi leading the Sonoran Audubon Society’s field trip (about 18 birders), we began around 8 a.m. by setting up spotting scopes on a berm from which we could look down into the fenced-off large basins loaded with birds. I counted 5 White Pelicans, 22 Cattle Egret, several Great Egret plus a great variety of ducks and cormorants. Raptors perching in distant trees included Cooper’s and Red-tailed Hawks, one a very dark morph. 

Sonoran Audubon field trip birders
Distant dark-morph Red-tailed Hawk
An Osprey flew overhead; a Northern Harrier flew low over the open marsh stream.

Hundreds of Yellow-headed and Red-winged Blackbirds lifted from the reeds into the sunlight as we returned from the berm to walk west on the dirt road beyond the fenced area. Here, streams moved slowly through the reeds while ducks enjoyed the morning sun. We walked slowly to avoid flushing birds ahead of us.

Cinnamon Teal - note its red eye
Common Gallinule (formerly Moorhen) (red frontal plate with yellow tip to bill)

Some birds perched on top of the fence or other advantageous high points:
Belted Kingfisher
Snowy Egret

Others fished with stealth from the reeds:
Green Heron
The sound of the Marsh Wren's chit calls accompanied us all the way to the intersection of three separate trails on which to continue westward.  Already 10 a.m., with a scheduled wrap-up time of noon, our choice was to turn back. 

A Harris’s Hawk perched across the wide pond opposite the concrete spillway. The Black Phoebe’s voice “tseeew” called our attention to the dry side of the spillway where two of them hawked insects from the air.
And on the spillway was a dead fish that I photographed because no one knew what it was. One man mentioned “sturgeon”. I don’t have a clue. Any of you fisher people??? I'm thinking a raptor had hold of it and another bird got it loose...hard to tell.

Birding the desert side of the trail on our return, we came upon Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Abert’s Towhees, Yellow-rumped Warblers and lots of White-crowned Sparrows. Interestingly, an Orange-crowned Warbler had been perched on a reed and a Song Sparrow picked nesting material from an open cattail when we birded the marsh side.

As we neared our parked cars, we took one more good look at the basins behind the fence where we found the “Bird of the Day” -  a HORNED GREBE - rare in this area.

Horned Grebe
Living in the West Valley of Phoenix, Bill is very familiar with the birds of Tres Rios and felt that the Harris’s Hawk and the Horned Grebe were the two outstanding sightings of the day. For me, it was seeing, if only briefly, the Least Bittern.
Least Bittern - photo by Glenda Jones

We drove back to our meeting spot through a pecan grove where we saw raptors, a Burrowing Owl and a few woodpeckers. Another day full of quality birding with 60 total species!

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Pinal Mountains, Globe, Gila County, AZ

Saturday, January 16th:
On a recent field trip with Dr. Dave Pearson, (, I mentioned my intention to bird the Pinal Mountains more regularly since I live nearby.  (Nearby, in birding terms means less than an hour’s drive.)
He quickly invited me to join him and two of his birding companions on a visit to the Pinals today. 

Thus, Glenda Jones, a wintering birding friend in my community from the Toronto area, joined in and drove her 4-wheel drive vehicle. With Dave, Darrell Wilder and John Ray we began birding the lower area of the Pinal Mountains at 8:15 a.m. @ 31°F. This lower elevation (3500’) Russell Gulch area is accessed from Russell Road.

With some good sightings of desert birds like Cactus Wren, Vermilion Flycatcher, Northern Cardinal and Abert’s Towhee to get us started, we then drove up the mountain to Russell Gulch Landfill - a new location to me. Apparently, John recently found it on one of his birding visits there.

What a sight! Hundreds of European Starlings and Brewer’s Blackbirds! Ravens, too, were plentiful.

A few Brewer's Blackbirds
One Brewer's Blackbird
Chihuahuan Ravens outnumbered Common Ravens, a rare moment in my experience in Arizona, let alone so close to home. Usually, I find the Chihuahuans (by ones or twos) much farther south in the state not in the number Dave counted here: 44 Chihuahuan Ravens; 10 Common Ravens.

Chihauhaun Raven on left; Common Raven on right.  Photo by Dave Pearson
Although the staff at the landfill told Dave about gulls and eagles visiting, we saw neither at our first stop in the morning nor at our later stop three hours later as we wrapped up for the day.

Other sights from our trip up the mountain:

Red-Naped Sapsucker - photo by Glenda Jones
Sapsucker holes in a pine tree
Williamson's Sapsucker was a NO SHOW even though we hung around its favorite tree. Photo by Dr. Pearson
As we continued into the 6,000-foot area, I was glad Glenda's car had 4-wheel drive. We needed it to get up the snow-filled incline.

Rare flowing stream of snow melt below the road (FR 651)
Just prior to reaching the campground area, the snow deepened. 

Parked beside the road and walked from here.
From this spot, Glenda spotted her first Yellow-eyed Junco while I picked up the Dark-eyed Juncos also down below on the snow-covered forest floor.

Walking through a snow-melt stream and on up gave us some more good birds.

From left: Glenda, Dave, Darrell
Glenda executing ballerina-move stream crossing
I've learned to walk right through streams without trying to balance on stones!

We didn't walk to the campground but birded as long as there were birds near us along the road before heading down again over the snow-covered dirt road.

Having seen 52 species (not quite as many as the top birders) was an awesome day of birding Pinal Mountain in January.  The snow and the landfill provided almost as much excitement for me today as the birds!

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