Riparian Preserve at Gilbert Water Ranch, Maricopa County, AZ

Tuesday, April 19th
Arriving at 6:00 a.m. at Gilbert Water Ranch, I had the unusual opportunity to see at least ten (10) Gila Woodpeckers take off from their cavity nests in the saguaro garden. Seldom do I see or hear that many throughout my birding time there, and I'm not sure where the woodpeckers go, but it was sure thrilling to see them all come out and take to the sky together. Perhaps, I was their alarm clock.

I was hoping to find a reported Dunlin in the mudflats of Pond 2, but I get so carried away with what I'm seeing and hearing that I almost forgot to check that pond! When I did find some good mudflats, only a single Least Sandpiper was poking around, but I stood my ground and waited. Within ten minutes, two flocks of Long-billed Dowitchers and mixed flocks of smaller birds arrived. The Dunlin was reported to be into or at least transitioning into breeding plumage with a black belly and that was really the main reason I wanted to see it. We're so accustomed to seeing all the drab winter shore birds that it's a real treat to find one in spring plumage. Should have been easy to spot - slightly bigger than the sandpipers, shorter than the yellowlegs. Nope, not there. My eyes aren't the best they can be so I took photos of the flocks in the shallows but no Dunlin appeared there either!

The Preserve was certainly not lacking for bird life. Playing in the background for the duration of my two-hour visit was the call and call-back of perching male Gambel's Quail in trees on benches, wherever they could find a spot. In my attempt to listen to other bird sounds, I found myself shutting out the quail sounds. . .but they were part of the fabric of the morning and so I just listened harder to the others. 

Gambel's Quail

Least Sandpiper

Lesser Yellowlegs - note breeding feathers beginning to bolden their color

Other birds included an American Coot walking on land showing off its big feet ... and one of several Black-crowned Night Herons stalking a morsel in the shallow water.

Black-crowned Night Heron

One of my favorite birds around water is the Belted Kingfisher. Although it was across the pond from me, I managed this one of a tricky bird to photograph.

Belted Kingfisher
The Yellow Warbler by the Mason Bly bench was much less cooperative, giving me only 1) its eyeballs; 2) its tail end; and finally, with no cropping, its whole body barely identifiable except for being all yellow with that marble-like black eye.

Liking the details of the birds fascinates me especially with the American Avocet. Such a striking bird in its mating plumage! The detail of its long bill lets you know which is the male and which is the female. Look below: the male's has a slightly graded up-curve; the female's is angled more sharply.

Refreshed with seeing 43 species in such a brief period of time, I headed home to prepare for an upcoming birding trip to - of all places right now - Houston. Not precisely Houston, but that's my airport. More later on migrating birds that I see next week!

* * *

Birded Four sites in Six Hours, Pinal County, AZ

Monday, April 18th
Today, I chose FUN as my objective -- not driving somewhere to see a specific bird, rewarding as that can be, i.e. Wilson's Phalaropes in breeding plumage over 50 miles west of here.
"So Many Birds, So Little Time" is bird guide, Melody Kehl's well-known bumper sticker and quoted by many of us who want to see rarities at several places at one time. Today, I decided to budget my time and locations to maximize general sightings without wearing myself out.

My intended destination was Boyce Thompson Arboretum (BTA) that maintains winter opening hours of 8:00 a.m. until May when it will be more accommodating to employees and visitors by opening at 6:00 a.m.

Being an early-riser, I chose Lost Dutchman State Park as my first destination; it's within a twenty-minute drive and would be open at 6:00 a.m. for the campground. Because my guided bird walks there are finished for the season, I didn't need to "scout" my usual route for that walk but, instead, spent my time farther uphill on the west side of the park for the 90 minutes I had allocated.

Stepping out of the car to a dawn chorus of birds -- mostly Brewer's and Chipping Sparrows -- made me glad I had chosen to bird instead of waiting for BTA to open. Time flew as I noted 24 species, including Bendire's Thrasher, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Gilded Flicker and my favorite -- Black-tailed Gnatcatcher.
Bendire's Thrasher; note the straighter bill with a lighter yellowish base from that of Curve-billed.
Not a great shot of the Bendire's, but enables you to see that lower mandible close to its face
Mourning Dove (left) and White-winged Dove
Black-tailed Gnatcatcher totally enthralls me (top and bottom)

Leaving Lost Dutchman close to 7:00 a.m., I knew I had time to spare to reach BTA, so I stopped at Picketpost Mountain Trailhead road about a quarter of a mile prior to the gate at Boyce Thompson Arboretum. After parking at the corral, I got out and birded, not expecting any special sightings. As it turned out, there were two Western Kingbirds chasing one another around that area and seeing no more during the rest of my birding visits, I added a list to eBird to include them. So this became my unscheduled Stop #2 with 13 species observed.

BTA's gate was open a tad early, so I was able to start birding at 8:05 a.m. 
In addition to Route 60 in front of the arboretum being under construction so, too, was the trail within BTA leading down to the hummingbird plaza. The internal detour took me directly to my planned location. I wanted to spend two hours among the trees in the picnic area and demonstration garden and bird them well. Usually, I walk through each area around the full perimeter of the arboretum, noting what I hear or see and continuing on. 

Not today. I hung out. If I didn't hear anything, I stood still and then the sounds would come: Yellow Warbler, Lucy's Warbler, Gambel's Quail, Cassin's Vireo, Lesser Goldfinch, Northern Cardinal, plus Gray and Brown-crested Flycatcher. I was beside myself with the sightings but bummed that the trees were beginning to leaf out and each bird seemed to know just how much of itself was exposed -- always too little for a complete identification photo of these very quick or partially hidden migrating wonders!

Audubon's YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER with yellow throat unlike the "Myrtle's" white throat (east coast bird)

INCA DOVE perched on a eucalyptus tree in the picnic area
Shade Trellis (with benches beneath) in the Demonstration Garden 
Columbine - one of my favorite flowers
Although I saw more birds at Lost Dutchman than I did at BTA, my findings here included several First-of-Year (FOY) sightings (marked on my list attached).

By 9:45 a.m., the sun was warming things up. I neither saw nor heard the pair of Hooded Orioles another birder mentioned they found in the Demonstration Garden area, but was ready to move up the highway beyond BTA, through Superior to Oak Flat Campground, elevation 4,000 feet.

Ahhh. It felt much better up there. A slight breeze was cooling but not a hindrance to birding.
Starting at the rocky southern end of the parking lot, I walked carefully up the hill to a picnic table where I enjoyed my sandwich and tried to pick out the birds that were singing or telling me to get lost. The Bewick's Wren wanted to know what I was doing in its apparent territory (I think its tree cavity is at the parking lot, but if there's a nest, this bird was rightly peeved.) I took my time with lunch, got a good look at the BEWR and then moved on. Actually, I was hearing more birds than voices I knew. The slight elevation change brings different species and I really need to expand my "library of sounds".  Several went unnamed because I couldn't retrieve the bird from my "known sounds". I concluded one of them sounded like the Townsend's Solitaire's single whistle but when I discovered the eBird database didn't include it in its default list, I was hesitant to press my "guess" and didn't count it.

At the rock outcrop:

Two photos of BLACK-THROATED GRAY WARBLER in a manzanita shrub. Note the yellow lore in front of the eye that helps in the identification of this bird, separating it from the Black & White Warbler
Two WESTERN SCRUB JAYS dared to fly over the manzanita scrub only to be chased by a tiny Verdin!!
After the rocky outcropping area, I drove over to the flat and grassy NW side where, when it rains, a lake develops for waterfowl. Today, it was dry. No rain for quite a while. But I saw more and different birds.

Wasn't quite sure what this was; tried to make it into a female bunting, but it's a FEMALE HOUSE FINCH.
Easy to remember this beauty with almost quail-like contrasting facial markings: LARK SPARROW

Best sighting in that area: a pair of VERMILION FLYCATCHERS (female below; then, male in red)

The six hours of birding in separate locations was very stimulating. For the day, I observed 52 species, details of which are in the links posted below, FYI.

* * *

Canyon Lake, Apache Trail near Tortilla Flat, Maricopa County, AZ

Saturday, April 16th
When Faulene Main posted a rare Red-necked Grebe while kayaking on Canyon Lake, I knew that was the real deal; she's a good birder.  To follow up, she and my birding companion, Jeanne Burns went out kayaking together on Thursday to see if it was still around.  Wow! Was it ever! Since I saw no other birding reports for it, I figured the two women reporting the rare grebe were generally unknown to the rest of the birding community. But I knew both of them and was confident if the bird hadn't left, I'd get to see it today.

Usually, I find this bird in winter (and duller winter plumage) way far west at Lake Pleasant. Today was my first available day to search it out for myself - minus the kayak - for only a 40-minute drive from home.

Having not visited Canyon Lake in over a year, I was quickly reminded how much I like the stark beauty of the drive up Apache Trail.

When I arrived at Canyon Lake a bit after 6:30 a.m., I checked the cove where Faulene and Jeanne had kayaked - no birds visible from the bridge.  Ah! From the other side of the bridge I spotted the Western Grebes with one dark one among them. Driving across the one-lane bridge, I took the first available pull-off beside the lake from where I continued to bird for a good 45 minutes. (Fishermen in trucks were earlier and taken the other pull offs.)
The birds were quite distant but I felt like I had good advantage in being high above them.
Not necessarily so as it turned out.  Below are some of my photos as well as Jeanne's close-ups from her kayak a couple days earlier.

In its mating plumage, this Red-necked Grebe was a rare gem in the East Valley of Phoenix.

Obviously, the bird with the long reddish neck is the rare one that I had never seen in its spring plumage.

Red-necked Gebe with Western Grebe

Since I no longer kayak, I missed photo time like Jeanne experienced a couple days ago:

Red-necked Grebe (above and below - photos by Jeanne Burns)

Although the Eared Grebes were closer to me, they generally had their backs to me so photos were simply good enough to validate my sighting.

Eared Grebe from up on the road, looking down
Below is Jeanne's eye-popping view of the Eared Grebe from her kayak:
Eared Grebe-photo by Jeanne Burns
After watching the grebes for a long time, I continued a short distance farther to the Acacia picnic area (permit required).

View across Canyon Lake from Acacia Picnic Area

View up-lake into the canyon from the beach at Acacia 
Due to boaters out on the water, these 3 Lesser Scaup came close enough to shore for a decent photo.

So many people were arriving at the lake on this beautiful Saturday, that I didn't continue up to the entrance and campground area where birding may have proved good.

Instead, I headed back on the Apache Trail.

Among the 31 species I saw, the gorgeous Red-necked Grebe was my fave. What a great way to start my day!

* * *

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

Sunday, April 10th
Trying to beat the midday rain forecast, Jeanne Burns and I met at our usual Park and Ride for an early start over to the West Valley. Both of us avoid using the commuter-stalled I-10 in that direction on weekdays and it was a pleasure to arrive in excellent time to begin birding at Tres Rios by 6:45 a.m.  The rain prediction had moved to earlier in the morning but it was a mild and pleasant beginning for our birding.

While we checked distant ponds with the spotting scope, the morning chorus of blackbirds in the marsh screeched and hollered in the background. Both Yellow-headed and Red-winged were there.

Tres Rios provides extensive birding habitat, but wanting to focus on marsh birds, we walked no farther than a mile. Yellow-headed Blackbirds (that winter in the Southwest) often fly north to western Canada to breed. Whether this large flock was staying to breed or just hadn't taken off yet, I don't know but I really wanted to try for decent photos of this bird. In addition to their very yellow heads and breast, their wings have white linings that show well in flight. And, they've proved very difficult for me to photograph.

Yellow-headed Blackbirds

Hundreds of Red-winged Blackbirds also populated the rushes. Obviously in courtship mode with their red shoulder epaulets (trimmed in yellow) flaring wide and thick with each song, they seemed oblivious to the camera.

Staying close to the marsh, we heard many Common Yellowthroat (warbler that likes the reeds), a Virginia Rail and two Least Bittern. We saw Great Blue Herons, as well as Great and Snowy Egrets.  When the cacophony of the marsh went quiet, we knew to look overhead.

White-faced Ibis flock had nothing to to do with the abrupt noise abatement from the blackbirds,
but this Cooper's Hawk below silenced them for several minutes before flying off

Cooper's Hawk

The sky was growing increasingly ominous with cloud cover turning to black and stormy.

White-faced Ibis from another big flock 

Just as we wrapped up at Tres Rios, a Bald Eagle flew over!

And, a cardinal that had been singing on our arrival in its bare-limbed tree continued to serenade the morning. 

Northern Cardinal

Our much-needed rain had not yet materialized, so we stopped by some ponds east of Tres Rios with the hope of finding Jeanne's major target: Black-bellied Whistling Duck.
What we found:

Two Killdeer

30 Least Sandpipers

Jeanne found several Western Sandpipers among the Least SP, while I counted 99 Black-necked Stilts clacking about among Northern Shovelers and other ducks. But none of the rare (for here) Black-bellieds. Western Sandpipers below, photo taken by Jeanne Burns. Note black legs, droopy bill, larger than Least Sandpiper, with reddish wash on crown and ear patch and on shoulders.

And, then, just a bit after schedule, the rains came down sending us home.

But not before we enjoyed another good morning among the birds!

* * *