New Year's Day 2016: Birded 9 out of 12 Recreation Sites at Lower Salt River, Tonto NF, Maricopa County, AZ

January 1, 2016
When, in mid-December, birder friend, Lois Lorenz, invited me to bird with her on New Year's Day, I joined in readily. When she gave me the option to choose location, she may not have realized that when a birder says "day" - I think all-day. Lois was game to see how many of the twelve (12) recreation areas situated along the local Salt River we could cover on Friday, 1/01/2016.

[Before leaving home with my old camera, I double-checked the Canon SX50 that went into Sonoita Creek with me on the 30th and had not yet responded.  TODAY - HAPPY NEW YEAR'S DAY to me == it worked! (after hair dryer treatment and sitting in bowl of rice for 24 hours] 

Marcee Sherrill joined us on our quest from 7:30 a.m. until noontime, but Lois and I continued until 5:30 p.m. And what a day!

These are the sites and the order in which we birded nine (9) of the twelve (12) recreation areas from dawn 'til dusk:

Coon Bluff
Phon D. Sutton
North pond of Granite Reef (Moorhen City Marsh)
Granite Reef
Blue Point
Pebble Beach
Water Users' Area
Butcher Jones (cove of Saguaro Lake)
Saguaro del Norte (north portion of lake by boat ramps)

The ones we missed were:  Goldfield, Foxtail and Sheep's Crossing.

Having arrived soon after sunrise at Coon Bluff, we set off to the east along the Salt River to see if the Rusty Blackbird(s) might still be around. We stopped for birds all along the way.

Female Western Bluebird in early sunlight
Female Western Bluebird preparing to take off
Salt River at Coon Bluff

As we neared the blackbirds in the water, we spotted a Bald Eagle flying toward one that we saw perched in the distance on the north side of the river. Our Arizona Bald Eagles are smaller than those in Alaska and the northwest.

Two mature Bald Eagles greeting

The Rusty Blackbird breeds in the north, but they all head south in winter, along most of the east coast and west to South Dakota and Nebraska. It's a rare bird in Arizona. Its first reported sighting was back in early December.  From the one bird seen then, recent reports have bumped it up to two. 

We had just reached the various blackbirds in the water when top birders, Tommy DeBardeleben and Jeremy Medina showed up. Always helpful! Two Rusty Blackbirds close to our shoreline provided a photo op for ID purposes. Note the light iris and short pointy bill. Its smaller size also sets it apart from the Great-tailed Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds that were at the same location all foraging in the shallows.
Two rare Rusty Blackbirds in the Salt River; one in sunlight, one in shade.
Rusty Blackbird
Since we were on a mission to bird as many recreation areas as possible, we headed back, then, to the mesquite bosque within Coon Bluff to see if the temperature had risen enough for the songbirds to get active. Oh, yes!

Male Silky Flycatcher: PHAINOPEPLA

Vermillion Flycatcher
A nice Gray Flycatcher eluded the camera. Highlights from Coon Bluff included not only the two rare Rusty Blackbirds, but a perched and singing Crissal Thrasher and a flyover flock of Cedar Waxwings. In addition to the two Bald Eagles, we also saw a Harris's Hawk and an Osprey before we left this STOP #1.

Phon D. Sutton Recreation Area has been the wintering spot for a Golden-crowned Sparrow but we failed to come up with it in our 50-minute visit. There was no rushing from place to place, but we also didn't bird deeply. Often times, I bird one of these rec areas for over four hours since they have varied habitat and interesting places to explore. Today, we checked the river - or I should say "rivers". This is where the Verde River flows into the Salt and from where they continue as one river (the Salt) downstream toward Phoenix.

Having just told Marcee that Moorhen City Marsh was a shoo-in for Common Gallinule, the American Birding Association's new name for the "moorhen", we saw none when we arrived. The area (named by a small group of us birders) is a back water of the Salt River that is full of marsh reeds off shore but also includes a nice ring of water flowing in, out and around it. Lois spied our first Greater Roadrunner of the day but when we reached the marsh, there were no Common Gallinule in sight. Given that we had been hearing hunter's guns all morning, there may have been good reason.  Before we left, two birds ventured out from the marsh grasses to swim right beside them.

Common Gallinule (formerly Moorhen)
Granite Reef was Stop #4. The temperature had become comfortable -- 52°F. Marcee carried her spotting scope here since waterfowl was present on the wide river from the picnic area where we began all the way west to the dam. Without the scope, I could not have discerned 75% of the ducks out there. Common Goldeneye and Bufflehead were outstanding among the usual Gadwall, American Wigeon, Northern Pintails, Ring-necked and Ruddy Ducks. Across the river close to the dam, we could also pick out Black-crowned Night Heron and Great Blues perched in trees on Tribal Land (north side of river).

Most surprising to me here were the two wild horses. This is the first time I've seen them at Granite Reef although evidence of prior visits was visible. 

Wild horses at Granite Reef - parking lot area

Marcee left at this point (noontime) but Lois and I had decided to continue on with our quest.
So, we began at Blue Point Recreation area where we birded for a while, then ate our lunch at a picnic ramada. We were visited by a nice guest.

Beep-Beep! -- Greater Roadrunner
Before we finished lunch, at least 20 cars had arrived full of families ready to enjoy the out-of-doors. Wind was picking up and too many people at Blue Point made it an easy decision to walk across Bush Highway to explore Pebble Beach. I seldom bird here but found it interesting with possibilities for deeper birding. Phainopepla have a corner on the real estate!  Our estimate of 15 birds is conservative.

Next stop at the Water User's Area (put-in for tubers) turned up very few birds -- ones we had already seen, so we continued on to Butcher Jones Beach area, where we hoped the crowds might be dwindling.  Well...somewhat.  A photo shoot of a beautiful blue-clad "mermaid" was fascinating but we turned our focus to the ducks off shore. Among the expected species were some gulls that I concluded (?) were all Ring-billed Gulls. 

Last stop of the day (#9) was at Saguaro del Norte. We turned left as soon as we entered Saguaro Lake to go past the unmanned gate. I have the necessary pass. The road leads along the north shore of the lake with two wide boat ramps. Beyond that, the road continues with parking next to a sidewalk by the lake -- on our right side (south); and on the north side of the road is desert habitat and canyon wall. With winds getting stronger, I didn't bother with my spotting scope or we may have had more species here. With boats still running up and down the lake, I doubt we would have had much success. That being said, we were totally jazzed by the sight of so many WHITE-THROATED SWIFTS flying in to roost for the night beginning around 5:00 p.m. We estimated 75. . . with more to come, I'm sure.

The first day of 2016 gave me the basic opportunity to enjoy the energy of the universe where it seems most available to me - outside, in natural settings. That the sun was shining and the temperature rose from 35-65 degrees also boosted our energy throughout the day. When exhilaration turns to quiet and peaceful exhaustion, I know I've had a wonderful day of birding. Thank you, Lois! == 73 species of birds for the day.

And HAPPY NEW YEAR to all of you!

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