Oak Flat, Tonto National Forest, Superior, Pinal County, AZ

Sunday, February 7th:
After a week of an allergic reaction to the dust storm of last Sunday's birding that brought on a good case of sinusitis, I finally felt good enough to get out to bird in some decent weather. Since I hadn't birded Oak Flat in quite a while, I imagined it would be teeming with good birds that I don't always see like Juniper Titmouse, Bushtits and raptors.

Noted for its campground, Oak Flat is located by going east on Route 60 through the town of Superior and on through the tunnel in Devil's Canyon. As the highway lifts out of the canyon and flattens -- that's where you look for the sign to the south: OAK FLAT CAMPGROUND. The main road leading in to the area is now also called the Mine Road. 

There is a designated campground, but people camp throughout the area. I pulled off the campground entrance road almost immediately (right) to check out the NW quadrant. It was disturbingly windy.  At 3,900', the temperature was already 50° but it felt much colder. Obviously, I was not going to see a lot of birds perched up and singing or out playing with one another as I had envisioned. But, I didn't expect to almost step on them, either. Out from under my feet and paying me no heed were two Dark-eyed Juncos drinking at a mud puddle and eating seeds in the dry grasses.

Oregon Junco with black hood; brown back; light bill
Look at the bird hunkered on the left.
At first I thought the hunkered bird was a Gray-headed but its back was too brown overall
I learned from Sibley Birds (book) that it is most likely a brown form of Slate-colored Junco, one I'd never seen 
Those two juncos feeding on the open ground were my only good sightings; most of the juncos were deep in the thick manzanita bushes where I could hear them and occasionally get a brief glimpse.

With the cold wet winter we've been having, I expected to find some water in the flat plain in the northwest corner of the property and there was so much it looked like a big lake. Ducks thought so, too. 

Ring-necked Ducks
Six Mallards
Female & Male Ring-necked Duck
Then, I walked up into the rocky promontory to see how far back into the flat area the water flowed. There, in a cove, I spooked up a pair of American Wigeon and found three Green-winged Teal.

Oak Flat is not my destination for waterfowl, but, hey! At least they were out and about.

Up on the rocky area, I heard an Anna's Hummingbird and saw a Phainopepla.

Anna's Hummingbird
After hearing a Bewick's Wren as I came down from the rocks, I scanned the sky but found only two Common Raven. So I drove over to the campground proper, through a big wide puddle crossing the dirt road. After parking there, I walked south and east over the boulders and on the road and into any quiet non-windy spots I could find..

Birds are usually flitting around in the Live Oak trees, the Desert Broom, the Junipers and the Manzanita bushes. Not today. Quiet, quiet, quiet. Too quiet! So, I walked the road farther than I ever had before.

View from the rocky dirt road - looking northwest
Desert Broom

After a while of not seeing many birds (two Western Scrub Jay chased each other up and down the hill and through the bushes), I retraced a few steps before taking side trails into flat land. Quite surprised to see some remnant snow and ice in a shady spot.

But it was in flat protected spots like this that I came upon a few of the birds I had hoped to see. Nothing spectacular, but always enjoyable: Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, Spotted Towhee and a flock of Chipping Sparrows moving through. Having no good file photos of them, I took advantage.

Chipping Sparrow (above & below)

With not so much as a peep out of a Rock or Canyon Wren, no Bushtits chattering away and no flycatchers to entertain me, I was bummed overall. Yet, I had spent a good 90 minutes or more in a very special habitat and I can't diminish that experience for even a second. To add to my less-than-usual good mood, my sinus congestion was reaching its peak again.

Opting to walk down into the campground where a small group of tenters appear to be living on the land, I was reminded that this birding spot may not always be here. In 1955,  President Eisenhower placed the campground off limits to mining. But last year two Arizona senators placed the campground into a trade-off position for a foreign copper mining company. (They can use it if they buy some other land for Tonto National Forest.) If the mining operation proceeds, it will suck so much water out from under the area that Oak Flat will become a giant sink hole due to subsidence. Native Americans use the land regularly; they're fighting to keep the foreign mine from taking Native Land. I don't understand how a rider on a budget bill (the "tradeoff") can trump President Eisenhower's ruling but we know how that story usually ends . . .  unless . . .

I'll be back on a better day to report better birds!!!

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