White Mountains, Navajo and Apache Counties; PLUS a rare bird back home in Maricopa County

Friday, Saturday & Sunday, August 26, 27 & 28th:

Four of us desert-rat birders managed to enjoy two rainy days and one cloudy blustery day in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest this past weekend. Our major target was DUSKY GROUSE -- a Life Bird for each of us. Second most sought-after bird was the AMERICAN THREE-TOED WOODPECKER, a Life Bird for two, and a Year Bird for two of us.

To find these two species required repeated trips to their most frequent locations. Of the 18 sites we birded, three of them were to Green’s Peak (dirt road north of 260) for the Dusky Grouse; two were to Butler Canyon Nature Trail in Greer for the 3-toed woodpecker.

I was in good company with Muriel Neddermeyer, Gordon Karre and Chris Rohrer for some intense birding. Due to lighting issues and my playing with the settings on my camera before the trip, many of the photos below were shared by my friends to supplement mine. Thanks!

DAY #1 - Friday 8/26
We visited four (4) birdy spots: [approximate times]
  1. Woodland Lake Park, Pinetop = 2 hours beginning at 9:00 a.m.
  2. McNary—old mill area = 40 minutes
  3. Little Colorado River—South Fork = 4 hours 
  4. Green’s Peak = 2 hours at dusk
With Gordon driving, we arrived at Woodland Lake Park about 9 a.m. to bird while walking around the lake. We marveled at the cool damp air. From the forest trail we could see six species of swallows flying over the lake.  (Purple Martin; Tree, Violet-green, Bank, Barn & Cliff Swallows)

A fine drizzle began soon after we started, but it felt good. Despite the rain, many birds were active.
Juvenile Pied-billed Grebe
Adult and two juvie Pied-billed Grebes
Red-Shafted Northern Flicker with white rump patch showing below rain-fluffed feathers
Grace's Warbler [Photo by Chris Rohrer]
Western Bluebird  [Photo by Chris Rohrer]
Sora [Photo by Muriel Neddermeyer]
Walking in opposite directions around the lake, I said "Good Morning" to a woman pushing her dog in a stroller. When we passed each other the second time, she spoke and it was only after she walked off that I realized it was Jan Elliott with her doxie -- a resident of my desert community, many of whom spend summers in the Show Low-Pinetop area.

At McNary ponds, our best birds were not in the water. I was surpised when we saw three (3) species of hummingbirds out there in the old mill area: BROAD-TAILED, RUFOUS and CALLIOPE. Topping this off were ten (10) beautiful WESTERN BLUEBIRDS and a VIRGINIA'S WARBLER making this spontaneous adventure well worth the stop.

Virginia's Warbler [Photo by Chris Rohrer]
The South Fork of the Little Colorado River, is one of my favorite places. We covered it from one end to the other even though the rain grew heavier at times.

Grass on roof of this top-of-the line cabin in South Fork 
Gordon (in doorway), Chris and Muriel at one of the dilapidated cabins from a long-ago youth camp
Townsend's Solitaire [Photo by Chris]
Chris (Selfie); Gordon, Muriel, Babs on trail beyond him (South Fork)
Lavender Astors
Black-headed Grosbeak
Northern Flicker-Red Shafted [photo by Gordon Karre]

Cassin's Vireo [Photo by Chris Rohrer]

Willow Flycatcher  [photo by Gordon Karre]
After checking into Reed's Lodge in Springerville, we drove to Green's Peak to see if we could find the DUSKY GROUSE at dusk. We followed the trail down through the forest checking into the trees and on tree limbs to no avail. I heard what I thought sounded like human voices but there were no cars around; we were totally alone up there at a little over 10,000' elevation. We couldn't figure out what we were hearing. It was definitely not the Dusky Grouse; it was a no show.
For me, the best part of the search was finding so many Mountain Bluebirds along the road up to the peak.

DAY #2 -Saturday 8/27
We generated 10 birding reports including one Common Nighthawk along Rt. 260. Other than that, we visited:
1)  Green's Peak = 1.5 hrs.
2)  Sheep Crossing = 1.75 hrs.
3)  FS Road 87 over to Greer = 20 min.
4)  Butler Canyon Nature Trail, Greer = 25 min. drizzle and slick trail; thunder
5)  LeRendevous hummingbird feeders = 30 min. 
6)  Greer Lakes = 1.5 hours (rain)
7)  Benny Creek Campground, Greer = 30 min.
8)  Lyman Lake State Park = drove eastward out of the rain;  1 hr. 20 min.
9)  Becker Lake = 15 minutes

Up early for a return visit to Green’s Peak at dawn to search for our Life Bird, we were stunned to have two COMMON NIGHTHAWKS lift off the highway and fly right into the front of Gordon’s car. One flew off. Yikes. Not a good vibe for the upcoming morning, I thought.

However, there were so many birds in the grasslands along the dirt road up to Green's Peak, we had trouble driving past without a few photos. HORNED LARKS, MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRDS, CHIPPING and VESPER SPARROWS, WESTERN MEADOWLARK and PINE SISKEN. We tried to stay focused on our target bird at the top.

Mountain Bluebird on mullein stalk [Photo by Muriel Neddermeyer]
Horned Lark  [Photo by Chris Rohrer]
Mountain Bluebird
Pine Siskin [Photo by Chris Rohrer]

From the 10,000' top of Green's Peak, in morning light instead of dusk, we hiked down the same trail as last evening with Gordon and Chris leading the way. Last in line because I was using hiking poles that make a slight noise, I missed seeing the UNEXPECTED.  When we reached a log across the trail at a flat lower elevation, Gordon called out, “Wolf!”  Chris caught a glimpse. In that hyper moment, Gordon was able to discern that it definitely was not a coyote but a wolf.  There had been a sign marking Green’s Peak as a reintroduction area for Mexican Gray Wolf . . . and the guys had just seen one of the pack. And guess what? When they disappeared, we heard the same sounds coming from the wolves that we had heard the previous night, not knowing what they were.  (no howling)
It had begun to rain yet again, so we returned, slowly, under higher altitude air, back up to the car on top of Green's Peak.

Bummed that we still hadn't found our Life Bird grouse, we consoled ourselves with the super sighting and sounds of a small pack of gray wolves.

At Sheep's Crossing, we spotted the reliable AMERICAN DIPPER (2 of them) and enjoyed watching them at water's edge.

American Dipper [Photo by Muriel Neddermeyer]
When the Dipper blinks, its white eyelid closes..as it also does when it dives underwater

Although we saw and heard many good birds at this location, the sky was overcast and lighting was poor for photos.  GOLDEN-CROWNED KINGLETS, CLARK'S NUTCRACKER and BAND-TAILED PIGEON showed themselves as we walked along the West Fork of the Little Colorado River on that lower end of the Mount Baldy Trail.

Our next major target was the AMERICAN THREE-TOED WOODPECKER found most reliably on the Butler Canyon Nature Trail in Greer. The bird favors burned Ponderosa Pine which was readily available on that loop hike. But did we work! We saw one woodpecker after the other: ACORN, WILLIAMSON'S and DOWNY WOODPECKER plus a NORTHERN FLICKER. Chris's photo of the DOWNY WOODPECKER below shows not only its shorter bill and smaller size than the Hairy but the two small black bars at the end of its white tail feathers.

Thunder and lightening became an issue so we cut short our pursuit of the American Three-toed and headed for brunch at Le Rendezvous along the road into Greer. Sitting on the outside deck (no one else out there while it rained), we spotted four species of hummingbirds: BLACK-CHINNED, BROAD-TAILED, RUFOUS and CALLIOPE. Muriel was able to take  awesome photos of the various hummingbirds including the Two Rufous and one Calliope (female)shown below.

Still raining, we drove out to Greer Lakes where, during intermittent showers, we were able to spot some new species including COMMON MERGANSER, EARED GREBE, OSPREY,  BELTED KINGFISHER and WESTERN WOOD-PEWEE.

A muddy drive into Benny Creek Campground gave us an usual sighting: an OLIVE-SIDED FLYCATCHER beside a puddle in the road. Was it a young one?  It didn't fly off.
Had it just started its bath and wanted to finish?  Who knows? But that normally top-of-the tree bird was right in front of us and watched us as we took one photo after the other.

Looking at the sky, it appeared less cloudy with some blue to the east of us, so we drove back through Springerville and eastward to Lyman Lake where we had muddy roads instead of rain. WESTERN GREBE, a couple EGRETS, BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERON and a SPOTTED SANDPIPER were at or in the water. Shrubs along the lake gave us some expected birds as well as a LAZULI BUNTING.

On our return to our lodge in Springerville, we stopped off at Becker Lake for about twenty minutes where the people we met were more interesting than the birds, but this is all about the birds, so I'll leave it at that.

DAY #3 Sunday, August 28th
Finally, we sucked up our miss of the Dusky Grouse and made another attempt for the American Three-toed Woodpecker on Butler Canyon Nature Trail, Greer.
Again, we saw many woodpeckers (WILLIAMSON'S, RED-NAPED, HAIRY) but were sure we'd find our bird in this heavily burned-out area that almost reached the center of Greer a few years back. 

Williamson's Sapsucker [Photo by Muriel Neddermeyer]

Eventually, I spotted the AMERICAN THREE-TOED WOODPECKER high up in a pine working the trunk. Photos were difficult but identified the bird that has a yellow, not red, head.

American Three-toed Woodpecker [Photo by Muriel Neddermeyer]

American Three-toed Woodpecker preening (revealing the yellow on top of its head)
Enjoying this success gave us the impetus to return for one last attempt for the Dusky Grouse at Green's Peak. Gordon had been in touch with some other birders who had found the bird at various locations up there, so while Muriel, Chris and Gordon bushwhacked down a steep hill in pursuit, I stayed at the peak enjoying the cool wind. 

When they returned without finding the bird, Gordon said he had just received a cell message that a rare bird had been located at Gilbert Water Ranch earlier today. So, we headed home a little after 11 a.m. in pursuit of a rare east-coast to Texas bird -- TRI-COLORED HERON.

After Gordon dropped me at home, they continued on to Gilbert Riparian Preserve at the Water Ranch and I soon followed. The heron was on a different pond than where it was seen this morning, but the remnant pool of Pond 6 appeared to give it plenty to eat.

TRI-COLORED HERON - three above photos

On that note we wrapped up a fantastically intense and rewarding birding trip to the White Mountains having seen a total of 133 species at the various locations we visited.

Mammals seen in the White Mountains:  Elk, Deer, Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel, Chipmunk, Abert's Squirrel, Mexican Gray Wolf.

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Woods Canyon Lake, Canyon Point Campground (Sinkhole), Forest Road 51 in Overgaard & Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery (3 separate counties: Coconino, Navajo & Gila)

August 9 & 10th
Birder friend, Jeanne Burns summers in Heber so we agreed to meet at Woods Canyon Lake around 7:30 a.m. to do some birding along the Mogollon Rim. After driving the 5,800-foot elevation change from my house, I arrived at the Store parking lot with a little time to spare. But a Ranger pulled in right behind me and started his gas-powered weed whacker spoiling the peace and quiet. Walking to the opposite end of the lot, I began birding and was viewing a GRACE’S WARBLER when Jeanne arrived.

From there, we walked east along the lake, the edges of which were lined with fishermen. While their lines remained slack, the fishermen watched three OSPREY take fish from the lake time after time. One Osprey stayed perched high in a snag on the opposite shore.

Osprey at Woods Canyon Lake

It had been several years since I had visited this birdy place so I was glad Jeanne knew her way around. She particularly wanted to see if she could find this year’s fledged Bald Eagles so we birded our way slowly to the dam area.

MOUNTAIN CHICKADEE songs sounded so thin and quiet compared to the STELLER’S JAYS and COMMON RAVENS.  

As we neared the dam, we began to hear BROAD-TAILED HUMMINGBIRDS zipping around. HOUSE WRENS were vocal while chipmunks and golden-mantled squirrels played on the rocks.

The Chipmunk’s striped face:

helps differentiate it from the Golden-mantled Squirrel also at that location.

Golden-mantled Squirrel

Babs crossing the dam
After crossing the dam, Jeanne remarked that the barriers protecting the Bald Eagle nest were down so that we could wander up along the trail on that side looking for the young eagles.

We never found the fledged birds nor the nest, but were quite happy with finding the mature BALD EAGLE perched on a limb with many branches in our way. We walked to find a clear view.
Mature Bald Eagle

Returning to our car by a different route through a campground, we spotted two more warblers: RED-FACED AND TOWNSEND’S.
We also walked south along the entrance road but road and paved trail-sealing projects deterred us — too noisy and active for birds to be hanging around. Altogether, we walked two (2) miles.

Having never heard about nor seen the sinkhole Jeanne mentioned, we stopped next at Canyon Point Campground where the sinkhole is located. Needing to park in the designated parking area, Jeanne said it would be a bit of a walk from there to our destination. We ended up walking almost another two miles.

By then, it was late morning and birds had quieted down, but spending a good hour walking through the Sitgreaves National Forest still gave us good numbers of birds in twelve (12) species. 

Two DARK-EYED JUNCOS made us “work” for identification. While we would expect a Gray-headed subspecies we were looking at a gray body, the usual black lore, rufous patch on its upper back, pale throat and bi-colored bill — indicating RED-BACKED FORM of Dark-eyed Junco. One was a juvie.

Bi-colored bill helps identify this Juvenile Red-backed form of Dark-eyed Junco from Gray-headed

Brown Creeper

Just as we were looking at a very active VIRGINIA’S WARBLER, we saw a long strand of humans walking up and out of the sinkhole. [Hiking group from Payson] So now that we had reached our destination, our hope of seeing birds was going to be greatly reduced from their presence.

But we went forward and descended slightly into the sinkhole, found a rock to sit on from which we could look down into the trees below us.  There is no water at the bottom, so the 40-50 hikers had probably hiked all the way to the bottom and back out. We got ZERO birds there in fifteen minutes.

After walking back to the distant parking lot by a different route, we headed to Jeanne’s cabin where I would leave my car so we could travel together.

We took some down time during which I enjoyed her multiple bird feeders and water features in her back yard. One bird that has always managed to evade my camera lens is the PYGMY NUTHATCH.  Fortunately for me, it was the most prominent bird at the feeders while I watched.

Pygmy Nuthatch - above and below

In late afternoon, we headed out to one of Jeanne’s favorite places: Forest Road 51 in Overgaard. Due to the hour and possibly the increasing clouds, it was very quiet bird-wise, but it was beatiful open green country and forest.  We spotted two wild horses, one of which was a tall tan horse with black mane and tail, suggesting a palimino. It was standing with a black horse that could explain the dark mane and tail. Both were in the distance but stunning to see, nonetheless.

Sunset from Forest Road 51 in Overgaard

Our original plan had called for going up to the White Mountains on Day #2, but with 90% chance of rain up there on Wednesday, I had called and canceled our room reservation. We would stay on the Rim to bird for awhile.

Returning to Forest Road 51 worked out much better with a 6:40 a.m. start.
We had barely turned in on the road when we started seeing small flocks of birds in the grasses beside us.  CHIPPING and LARK SPARROWS were abundant as were WESTERN BLUEBIRDS. 

Jeanne heard a Western Meadowlark while I spied a CASSIN’S KINGBIRD on my side of the road.  We stopped at various spots to get out and walk about enabling us to come up with a few HAIRY WOODPECKERS, NORTHERN FLICKERS, PYGMY and WHITE-BREATED NUTHATCHES. But the bird Jeanne really wanted me to see was the Lewis’s Woodpecker that was not in its usual grove of Pondersosa Pine.

Cassin's Kingbird on a mullein stalk; they seem to like that herb

As we reached our turn-around point at the five-mile mark, we began to hear WESTERN WOOD-PEEWEE.  On our return drive, we stopped again at the pine grove and this time, success!  Photo is lousy due to clouds, backlighting and bird position but we saw an identifiable LEWIS’S WOODPECKER.  Yay!

Forecast for showers to begin in Payson at 11 a.m. motivated me to start back down from the Rim Country before I got caught in rainshowers.  Had just learned by email photos that Apache Junction had finally gotten some of the rain that was flooding so many other cities around us and leaving us dry. Apparently, we had 2.5” in a short period of time yesterday filling our water retention area to the max. So, I had no intent of getting caught in any flooded waterways and departed Jeanne’s good company and mountain cabin at 10 a.m.

Before reaching Payson, I pulled off to stretch my legs at the Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery (Arizona Game & Fish). I was curious as to whether the American Dippers spent the summer there but found none. In abundance were Painted Redstarts darting and dashing into Tonto Creek near the falls below the pipe. Trying to get photos of them took a lot more time than I intended spending there!  

Painted Redstart hiding from me
Painted Redstart

On down the mountain into Payson and home via Bush Highway, I covered the 138 miles from Heber to home in three hours.

Although disappointed in not being able to visit the White Mountains briefly, I know that I’m heading there with birding friends toward the end of the month and am already looking forward to that trip.

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