Memorial Day Weekend Birding -- Pinal & Maricopa Counties, AZ

Avoiding traffic and crowds led me away from the Salt River (family picnics and party time) to some of my other favorite birding spots during this holiday weekend. I landed in some very quiet (of people) birding spots.

Saturday, May 28:  Lost Dutchman State Park
Arriving at 5:30 a.m., prior to all the hikers that would flow into these popular trails of the Superstition Mountains in a few hours, I strolled the foothills with the first rays of light and lots of bird sounds. I was hoping to spot some migrating songbirds.

The loudest calls came from male Gambel’s Quail perched in trees or obvious perches.  A permanent resident (non-migratory), these plump colorful birds have already hatched many young and seem to be pairing off again.

Listening to singing Verdin and calls from Curve-billed Thrashers, I switched into “desert” mode.  Standing somewhat hidden by a palo verde tree, I watched a pair of Gila Woodpeckers trade off feeding duties at a very high nesting cavity in a distant saguaro. 

Then I heard the call of an Ash-throated Flycatcher. I continued to stand still and, would you believe?, two of them flew right into my hiding tree so close I couldn’t take photos! Tilting my head upward, I watched them briefly until they flew off together.

My favorite Black-tailed Gnatcatchers were out and about chattering the whole time but never still.

Rarely do I see as many Gilded Flicker as I saw today. Very similar to the Northern Flicker seen across the country, the Gilded Flicker is a separate smaller species with small details of difference. The crown on a Gilded Flicker is browner  (think cinnamon) than the gray of the Northern Flicker but the easiest way to distinguish the two in the desert is when they fly. The Red-shafted Northern Flicker that lives out west shows red under its wings when it flies; the Gilded sports a bright yellow underwing.

During the three hours I walked the trails, my favorite sighting was a very common bird that was in an unusual location. Normally found by the feeding station near the entrance to the SP, a Northern Cardinal was perched high on a distant saguaro in front of the Superstition Mountains singing its heart out.

Sunday, May 29: Bushnell Tanks, North Sycamore Creek & Sunflower

To meet Lois L. and get to our destination along the Beeline Highway just before sunrise, I left home at 4:15 a.m.

At 5:20 we stepped out of the car into 51°F, but I warmed up quickly with the bird song around us. Is that what I think it is?  My target bird?  It took awhile to find it but it flew over our heads and perched much closer than its first distant voice. Indeed, it was a Blue Grosbeak, a bird I favor for its muted blend of beautiful blue and brown feathers. We would see many more during our 3 1/2 hours walking the trails, but photos of none.

The BLUE GROSBEAK photos below were taken at previous times and places:

Blue Grosbeak; Las Cienegas 2014

Blue Grosbeak; Madera Canyon 2015
Birds were beginning to sit out on bare limbs as the sun came over the mountain ridges.  TURKEY VULTURES began to stretch in the roosting tree. One must have thought the tree was a bit crowded and perched right next to the trail.

Costa's Hummingbird

The most abundant colorful bird we saw was the WESTERN TANAGER (21) — mostly males but many females, too.  

Female Western Tanager

LUCY’S WARBLERS seemed to be ever-present, too. But I could get no photos of them or the YELLOW WARBLERS whose voices I’ve finally learned to differentiate. With cottonwoods and sycamore in full leaf, finding these tiny flitting birds is maddening.

BEWICK’S WRENS also called from the time we left the car until we returned. My count of 14 is a conservative estimate.

Once we crossed Sycamore Creek, we came upon two COMMON BLACK HAWKS perched on a bare limb close by.

Eventually, we turned to retrace our steps. Since eBird allows only the calculated distance in one direction on a “retrace”, we walked close to three (3) miles there.

Trail leading back toward Sycamore Creek

Lois crossing Sycamore Creek

Wrapping up at Bushnell Tanks, we drove to a personal location called North Sycamore Creek where we enjoyed our lunch under the shade of the tall trees while watching more birds. There, the creek had pooled into quiet waters that birds visited off and on.

Then, we polished off our morning with a drive into Sunflower on Old Highway 87 to where it ends at a barricade, again spotting birds as we drove slowly without traffic.  

For the day, we tallied 51 species. I’ve never quite figured out how to tally the pleasure that I derive from this activity.

Monday, May 30 (Memorial Day): Riparian Preserve at Gilbert Water Ranch
Visiting a place so close to home meant I could really sleep in and didn’t leave the house until a bit after 5 a.m. 

Today, my intent was NOT to bird, but to photograph an uncommon, if not rare, bird being seen regularly there. A LEAST BITTERN was hanging out in marsh grasses along the edges of the Fishing Pond behind Gilbert Library. When birding, I rarely check that pond.

Pete Moulton arrived minutes after I did so, together, we got quick brief looks at our target bird (male Least Bittern) from the walking bridge at the pond.  Then it flew - beautifully - at eye level across to another set of reeds. Did I lift my camera? No!  In flight, the bittern was stunning!

The two of us set out to locate it over there.  We saw it fly again to the very west side reeds and I’ll post some very distant photos of it there because it gave such a nice profile. 

Least Bittern background; Western Grebe, foreground

Pete pointed out another Least Bittern at the left end of the same reeds; he thought it was a female due to its brown back. I got a photo of a brown back that I’ll not post, but it shows it before the two of them started to inch toward one another.

I noticed photographers on the bridge taking photos into the reeds that we had left, so we returned there for much closer views of “our bird”.  Interestingly, that gave us a total of three (3) Least Bitterns in the fishing pond!

The Least Bittern is our smallest heron with pale buff color and green back, sometimes mistaken for the larger Green Heron.  Least Bittern seems more delicate and, while usually very secretive, allowed five of us to be fairly close to it for photos this morning.

I stayed an hour enjoying what is usually a very seclusive bird.

Another fun weekend of birding.

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Page Springs, Yavapai County, AZ

Thursday, May 26th:
If you live in Arizona, a visit to Page Springs Preserve may conjure up visions of many vineyards and wine-tasting opportunities. But many birds are hidden in uncultivated sections of the community along Lower Oak Creek at an approximate elevation of 3200'.

Taking Yavapai County Road 30 that exits off of I-17 north, and after it passes through Cornville, there, on the east side of S Page Springs Road, is a nifty place called Bubbling Ponds Fish Hatchery, part of the Page Springs Preserve.

Just after 6:30 a.m. when Julie Clark and I arrived to a chilly 51°F, we heard and saw a SUMMER TANAGER sunning in a nearby snag of a tree.

Summer Tanager (male) 

Quickly, I turned my attention to a Western Kingbird that flew past and briefly settled on an overhead wire before continuing. A handsome bird, too busy to pause for a portrait.

There were Common Yellowthroats singing and Red-winged Blackbirds (both males and females) active in marshy sides of the Bubbling Ponds. Even though we thought we were moving silently toward the ponds, a Green Heron flushed from a distant one.

Not put off by our presence was one of our best sightings of the day.

They aren't "just" ducks; they are WOOD DUCKS!  Look at that special white outline around the female's eye. She's taking her young out to forage for breakfast staying close to the edges of the pond; they don't stop until they've found a protective place in the shade. Why are female birds not highly colorful? For just this reason; they need to blend in to nest and take care of young. The highly colorful male did not show up. An uncommon species, it can sometimes be found on sheltered ponds with trees around. It nests in tree cavities or boxes.

A more familiar bird flew into the next pond.

Great Blue Heron

We would see several more Great Blue's flying overhead this morning. Their tucked-in white heads shown brightly in the morning sun. Bald Eagle? Not hardly with those big draped wings! The birds were doing a "meet-up" thing in the tops of bare trees, moving closer to one another and then flying off again.

Taking the long loop trail away from the ponds to a mesquite bosque brought us to another bunch of much smaller birds. Verdin and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers were active; Northern Cardinals would pop up into view from time to time; Bell's Vireos were calling; and Lucy's Warblers were abundant.  But the songbird of the day was the WESTERN TANAGER. Although I had been slow to find them this spring, I was now surrounded by them -- watching them fly from perch to perch behind willow branches or even landing on a tree trunk.  There was no point in trying to get close for photos, but I managed to pull in a couple of these striking male tanagers. As usual, you may need to look closely!

Even with its head turned, this bird is nothing short of gorgeous!

In this high desert habitat, I came upon a few PHAINOPEPLA that may be working their way northward for the summer much like the residents of my community! We saw one female at Bubbling Springs (below) and a male when we drove to the adjacent fish hatchery and trail.

Ever present during our 2-mile walk was the incessant mimicry sounds of several YELLOW-BREASTED CHATS. They're very difficult to see and I've long wanted to get a decent photo. That happened a couple days ago at Boyce Thompson Arboretum so I'll post it below as the Chats were a no-show today.

The loop birding trail at Bubbling Ponds took us to the edge of Oak Creek where we could look through a fence on the opposite side into the Fish Hatchery property, also part of the Page Springs Preserve.

That was our next stop. Taking the birding trail there produced some of the same and some different species. Instead of so many of the plain gray Lucy's Warblers, we were serenaded by many Yellow Warblers that also sat up for good views - too distant for photos.  

One of our unusual sightings here were the two young Western Bluebirds that weren't yet fully blue! The tail and several of the outer wing feathers were already blue and those wings worked well; they didn't give us enough time for a photo.

A birding visit to Page Springs Preserve doesn't seem complete without seeing a COMMON BLACK HAWK since they are known to nest there. Not far along the Fish Hatchery trail, I spied the hawk perched on a distant tree. Minutes later, it took to the air.

Julie and I wrapped up with a picnic lunch at the Fish Hatchery ramada watching American Robins dig for worms in the grass.

A wonderful day at Page Springs Preserve with Julie.

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Hassayampa River, Maricopa County AND Prospector Park, Pinal County, AZ

Saturday and Sunday, May 21 and 22
After cataract surgery in my right (bad) eye on Monday, I laid low for a few days to allow my body, and especially, the eye, to adjust. 

Eager to get out in the field I had arranged with Lois Lorenz and Julie Clark to do just that. But with winds gusting in the East Valley and predicted at our destination, I contacted them late on Friday and said, "Have you been to Hassayampa recently?" They were definitely on board for a change of plans.

After picking them up along US 60, I showed them a new, quicker and low-stress route to get to the Hassayampa River Preserve near Wickenberg: -- Route 303 north had an Exit for US 60 North, a straight shot toward our destination. Being a Saturday meant traffic on the first leg of our journey (I-10 West) was also light. The Preserve is a Nature Conservancy property managed mostly by volunteers.

Many birders know that the US 60 Rest Area about two miles before the Preserve provides a quick look at some birds along this strange river that runs above ground here but not everywhere. The Apaches referred to it as the "upside-down river" because so much of it flows underground.

In 25 minutes of birding there, over the fence along the river, we saw 16 species of some really neat birds, only one of which I was able to photograph in the morning sunlight.

Summer Tanager
The place had been popping with birds: Brown-crested and Ash-throated Flycatchers, many Lucy's and Yellow Warblers, a Great Blue Heron, a pair of Vermilion Flycatchers and the female for this male Summer Tanager above.

At the parking lot, we came upon top-notch birder,Tommy Debardeleben with two friends, Josh and Garth, also about to leave for the Preserve where the gate would open at 7 a.m.

There, we found Gordon Karre and Dale Clark also on hand to search out the two rare birds for this area: TROPICAL KINGBIRD and THICK-BILLED KINGBIRD. 

With seven pair of eyes and ears, pressure was off me to find these rarities, so off we went.
Lois, Julie and I birded our way to the destination where we discovered the others had just seen both kingbirds. So, we hung around.

It wasn't long before Josh heard the Thick-billed and tracked it down to a "window" in a cottonwood tree.This was better than any view I had of this bird at the Patagonia Rest Area.

Thick-billed Kingbird above and below

Although the Thick-billed's  thickness (look at that neck and belly) makes the bird look really big, and in contrast to Sibley's take on size, it appears close to that of the Tropical Kingbird that also returned soon after I finished taking photos of the Thick-billed gem of a bird.

Tropical Kingbird in the cottonwood above
on open branch below.
Note the white throat, greenish breast, yellow belly and notched tail-- in contrast to the Thick-billed Kingbird.

We continued to see and hear many species, albeit not nearly as many as those top birders in our company. Ones I particularly liked were the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, a subspecies of the general "Willow Flycatcher"; Western Tanagers, and Bullock's Orioles. Although I missed spotting Tommy's Purple Martin among the swallows over Palm Lake, I hung around later with Lois and Julie until I spotted it.

We came upon Dee (a birder who had found us on the KINGBIRDS) who was now taking photos of a bird high in a tree near the lake. She was on a THICK-BILLED KINGBIRD again -- the same one? Or, a second. We don't know but It played peek-a-boo with my camera, leaving me with the photo below as best shot.

Thick-billed Kingbird

Bullock's Oriole

Saturday hours at the Preserve are 7:00 to 11:00 a.m. during the summer, so the three of us women wrapped up a little before that and found our way into Nana's, a good "locals" restaurant in Wickenburg for a bite to eat. 

We had tallied 46 species along the Upside-down-River in this wonderful spot where it is Topside.

Having taken it easy for a full week, I decided rather than go on another chase today for what would be a Life Bird, I slept in, enjoyed a leisurely morning and then couldn't stay inside any longer! A beautiful day for birding needed to be addressed.

Apache Junction's City Park, Prospector, offers grassy soccer fields and trees surrounded by desert that are full of birds.

Today's specialty was a Gilded Flicker with two young on the same tree with her.

Adult at top; young male low center and young female below him on same palo verde trunk

Female (no red mustache stripe) Gilded Flicker getting grubs for the family

Male and female Vermilion Flycatcher

And, one of my favorite desert species: the Black-tailed Gnatcatcher below.

In the desert this morning, I found myself inspecting distant ironwood trees for owls. That means the new lens and lack of cataract in my right eye are enabling me to see more than the tree in bloom; I could see each and every branch -- definitely good news!

Such wonderful birding in two days!

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