Labor Day Weekend: Birded Pinal Mountain, Mt. Ord and Glendale Recharge Ponds (Gila and Maricopa Counties) AZ

The arrival of September does not always mean the end of summer — at least not here in the Arizona desert. Yet with the heat beast diminishing to temperatures in the low 100°s (F), it felt like the right time to start birding locally again.

From an hour east to an hour north, I found good birds at higher elevations and from recharge ponds an hour west in the desert, I found good shore birds.

Saturday, September 3rd
The well-maintained dirt road up the Pinal Mountains near Globe was somewhat rough from recent rains. Lois Lorenz and Julie Clark (driver) joined me for an escape from our oppressive heat with hopes of seeing migrating and resident birds. Early enough to connect with feeding flocks of various birds, we stopped many times along the long road up the mountain before - six hours later - reaching our turn-around point. 

Turkey Vulture looking odd on this utility pole so early in the morning. Tired this morning??
At the lower elevations, we saw common birds like GAMBEL’S QUAIL, WESTERN KINGBIRDS, PHAINOPEPLA, ABERT’S and CANYON TOWHEES, VERMILION FLYCATCHER and five sparrow species; as well as WOODHOUSE’S SCRUB JAY (formerly Western Scrub-Jay), BULLOCK’S ORIOLE, YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO, OLIVE-SIDED FLYCATCHER and one female each of SUMMER and WESTERN TANAGER.

One of my favorite flycatchers, this Olive-sided perched up nicely for us several times at various places.

When we reached the tall pines of Sulfide del Rey Campground, about six or seven miles from our starting point, we stopped and birded the area with only two camping sites occupied with no people present. Finding a wide berry tree that provided shade for us and food for birds, we sat on a low rock wall and watched.  BRIDLED TITMICE, WHITE-BREASTED NUTHATCH, PYGMY NUTHATCH, WESTERN TANAGER and four warbler species (NASHVILLE, BLACK-THROATED GRAY, TOWNSEND’S AND PAINTED RESTART) came to the tree.  On the ground were several YELLOW-EYED JUNCO and landing in a nearby deciduous tree was a single AMERICAN ROBIN.

Painted Redstart
Yellow-eyed Junco
Higher up the mountain, at the next campground and picnic area, we spotted ACORN and HAIRY WOODPECKERS, both RED and WHITE-BREASTED NUTHATCHES and an ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER among others.

After eating lunch as more and more people arrived for the weekend, we walked up the mountain less than one-quarter mile to where a resident had five hummingbird feeders hanging between trees at his cabin. We could observe from the road: MAGNIFICENT, BLACK-CHINNED, BROAD-TAILED, RUFOUS AND CALLIOPE HUMMINGBIRDS.

Rufous Hummingbirds
What bugged us the most about the people arriving for a good get-away weekend on the mountain was the fact that they cranked their music to disturbing decibels... literally drowning out any birdsong.

So, down the road we rolled. It was only 102°F when I reached the house around 3:00 p.m.

Sunday, September 4th:
Among my email after returning from the Pinal Mountains yesterday, was an invite from Susan Fishburn to join her today for a trek along FR1688 on Mt. Ord located a bit north of Mile Post 222 off of State Route 87 (Beeline Hwy).

We got started before the sun was entirely lighting up the trees and bushes but by stopping at the corral and several other places to check out bird sounds, we managed to find a GRAY VIREO and a couple BLACK-CHINNED SPARROWS among the many WOODHOUSE'S SCRUB-JAY (formerly Western Scrub-Jay). Brilliantly colored WESTERN BLUEBIRDS were beginning to perch up - the females more demure in their pale rufous breasts; the males looking splendid with blue backs, throat and belly and dark chestnut breast.

After driving the mountain road for about three miles, we reached Forest Road 1688 where we got out our hiking poles and started walking into the transition zone between the lower Sonoran slopes of juniper and chaparral and the Ponderosa Pine of the higher elevations. With both habitats available to the birds, we were surprised that it was so quiet bird-wise. True, there was a family (with children) camping out under the trees but birds could size that up for its lack of bird threat. So we walked and we walked. The uneven road trail was a mix of rocks, dirt and scree.  

Our first sighting of note was a male HAIRY WOODPECKER that flew into a tree ahead of us. Barely able to get a photo, it took off quickly.

Higher up, ACORN WOODPECKERS got our attention. Then, another HAIRY WOODPECKER and a couple NORTHERN FLICKERS arrived. A PLUMBEOUS VIREO, heard at the lower elevation, was also present here as were the expected WOODHOUSE’S SCRUB-JAYS. 

When we reached a higher elevation, we spotted a wide opening into the forest. Susan said she had descended that route before, so we found a trail and worked our way through the shaded forest. PYGMY NUTHATCHES tapped out their presence on nearby trees; WHITE-BREASTED NUTHATCHES went head-first down the trunks of several pines picking up insects and whatever other goodies it could find. 

By the time we could see the family camping below us, we came upon both a male and female HAIRY WOODPECKER working separate trees; a flock of BUSHTITS, and two hummingbirds: RUFOUS and, later, a CALLIOPE.

Female Hairy Woodpecker (top & bottom) better light than where the male was located

The last bird on our list from that adventure was a HUTTON’S VIREO that called out just as I was tucking my field notebook away

Monday, September 5th:
Meeting Lois early at our usual location along Gilbert Road, we managed to arrive at the Glendale Recharge Ponds within 45 minutes.  No commuter traffic on this holiday!!

We began birding at 6:45 a.m. This unseemly location appears to be getting a welcome upgrade. Concrete sidewalk has been appearing slowly and now covers most of the distance around the fenced perimeter of the six ponds. Tree planting on the slight bank below the sidewalk should make the deserted and often-trashed and less-than-secure area more habitable for humans. A number of bike riders were already using the sidewalks.

This has not been one of my favorite places. It usually takes a minimum of an hour’s drive and the six ponds are laid out in a rectangular grid with no trees for shade. It’s a Salt River Project recharge facility and I’m glad they allow birders to access the ponds. It’s amazing how many “shore birds” stop by for a rest. It’s not exactly the California coast, but the list of birds reported yesterday included: Sanderling, Marbled Godwit, Least and Western Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitcher and a Black Tern. No way are these “desert” birds.

Lugging my scope along with binoculars and camera, I asked Lois to maintain my field notes. Our first sighting was a BALD EAGLE on a utility pole along the east-side canal. A good omen, I thought.

Only two ponds had water and I wasn’t really interested in birding the dry ones. But Pond 5 that had provided the mudflats for the shorebirds was quickly filling with water being pumped into it. We were lucky to find ONE of the birds I was hoping to see and the only one I suspected I wouldn’t be able to identify.  The Sanderling is easy; from the beaches of Virginia and North Carolina, I would point out to my children the black-legged, black-billed, black and white bird along the waves that was bigger than the sandpipers. I knew it in relation to the birds around it. In these desert ponds, I just needed to find it - period. If my spotting scope had landed on it, I would have known it. But with no mud flats and only shallow-water edges to the pond, I came up short.

We saw an OSPREY fly low over the middle east-west canal between the big ponds. It grabbed breakfast and it, too, found a perch on the cross beams of a utility pole to enjoy it.

A Marbled Godwit is a big bird among the ones I was seeing. Where was it??  Don’t know; never found it.

But, surprisingly, I found the bird I thought I wouldn’t recognize, SHORT-BILLED DOWITCHER. It was foraging apart from the Long-billed Dowitchers and looked much lighter to me. It was exciting to check off the identification markers I knew would provide me with a positive ID. By the time I moved my binoculars from studying it, an American Kestrel flew over spooking it. At least I got to hear its call, “tu tu tu” — a further identification that differs from that of the Long-billed Dows.

Lois has a good eye and spotted a number of our birds. She picked out the first WILSON’S PHALAROPE and I found another one later. Although we birded Pond 2, also with water and duck weed, I found mostly ducks and found none of my target birds (Sanderling; Marbled Godwit) at that location. There’s much churn among the birds flying from one pond to another and sometimes just taking off. Other birders that day did find both target birds I missed. 

It got hot fast!  The only photo I took was of a SNOWY EGRET perched up along one of the berm walkways beside the east-west canal.

Snow Egret
In just under two hours, we saw 31 species, and both of us were pleased with what we saw.

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