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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