White Mountains; Apache and Navajo Counties, Arizona

Weekend of September 30; October 1 & 2:
Due to rain in Springerville, Marcee and I delayed our planned mid-week birding trip to the White Mountains to the weekend. Still raining in Springerville (with a forecast of sunshine in mid-afternoon when we left home around 10:30 a.m. on Friday), we took our time, enjoying lunch at the Salt River Canyon Rest Area before continuing on.  

With no rain in Show Low, we stopped first at Fool Hollow Lake State Park (elevation: 6,300’) adjacent to the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests. To begin birding at 1:50 p.m. is the pits for song birds who seem to take siesta that time of day, so we birded the lake first. Fed by Show Low Creek, the lake appeared full and must be full of fish. Not only were there fishermen on many of the fishing platforms/docks around the lake, but an Osprey was constantly in motion.

After “spotting” the waterfowl on the lake, we walked through the campgrounds with names like “Bluebird”, “Meadowlark”, “Flicker”, etc. searching for birds in the grasses and a possible Juniper Titmouse in the many juniper trees.  We found few birds, so we drove over to the main campground area where we discovered birds were coming alive in the meadows surrounding the remote dump station (for motorhomes).

Indian Paintbrush
What a difference!  Woodpeckers, Steller’s and Scrub-Jays were providing the background sound as Western Bluebirds, American Robins, Yellow-rumped Warblers and the ever-challenging sparrows flitted about the grasses. 
Western Bluebird (above & below)

Sighting a SAGE THRASHER perched up in plain sight was a thrill for me since it’s a desert bird I rarely see.
Sage Thrasher
Although I thought, by photograph, that the scrub-jay below was the California Scrub-Jay because of its very white eyebrows, dark band down into the breast and very white under-tail covert, the eBird gatekeeper said, essentially, location of the bird is critical and if it's not on the very west coast of Arizona or in California, it won't be a California Scrub-Jay.
Until recently, we had one Western Scrub-jay that has now been split into the two species: the California and the Woodhouse's, with the WOODHOUSE'S SCRUB-JAY, being the default for Arizona and the one below.

We found 27 bird species in the 2 1/2 hours we were at Fool Hollow SP. E-bird link will be the first in the list below.

Almost dark with roads still wet from rain when we arrived at Reed’s Lodge in Springerville, we checked into our reserved rooms. The Lodge was booked solid for the night.

DAY #2 October 1st with Marcee and Jeanne Burns who spent the morning with us.

One of the most productive birding sites in the White Mountains is the South Fork of the Little Colorado River in Apache County, located at a well-signed road along Route 260 between Pinetop and Eager. It’s not terribly far from Eager between Mile Posts 390 & 391.

Jeanne was driving up from her cabin in Heber to join us at 7:30 a.m.  Arriving just a few minutes prior to her pulling in behind us at the bridge pull-off, I caught sight of one of my favorite but hard-to-find birds flying overhead. With its white flash on its black wings and short white under-tail, I knew it was a “CLARK’S NUTCRACKER”.  Another one flew over shortly after the first, just as Jeanne arrived but was not yet out of her car.

Marcee and I had already seen a large flock of birds fly over but they were backlit and looked black. Although we both assumed they were PINYON JAYS, we didn’t list them. But they would come back from the west and fly east over all three of us with their full blue bodies showing well in the early sun. They did another fly-over, west and then east again before we left, the flock growing in size each time so that we ended up counting 25 in the final flock. Interestingly, they were quiet in flight in each time.

Four (4) TOWNSEND’S SOLITAIRE, another frequent find at this place, appeared to be enjoying the morning light, perching up on pines and junipers.  

Another specialty at South Fork is the GRAY CATBIRD. Although it eluded a visual spotting, its distinctive catlike mewing let us know that two were present: one in the thicket beside the South Fork of the Little Colorado River and one in the grasses across the road we walked.

The highlight here was a distant light-colored hawk perched in an old hardy,  twisted-limbed pinyon pine. From where we stood it looked like a Gray Hawk. I’m standing there saying, “I surely don’t want to enter THIS into eBird!”  Our mistakes are challenged.  😕 But with our limited experience of birds in this mountain location, it looked like that southeastern Arizona bird to us. Jeanne’s photo, athough not reproduceable, was good enough to show a red eye and white supercilium that put us into the right mode.  NORTHERN GOSHAWK is common there and from the distance, our memories had called up Gray Hawk.

Although we moved on up to the Campground, we spent just 30 minutes there while a few rain drops fell. A DOWNY WOODPECKER’s drumming got our attention (flew just as I snapped a photo so have nothing but a short blur) and a RED-BACKED DARK-EYED JUNCO, were the only two species we had not yet seen.

Next stop was east on Route 260, to Highway 273 to Sheep Crossing. There, we found the precious sought-after AMERICAN DIPPER doing its thing - standing on a rock across the Little Colorado River from where we stoood.

American Dipper with its nictating membrane (eyelid) closed (protects it under water)  Photo by Jeanne Burns

Two more American Dipper photos from my camera 

Next stop was my choice; I had not yet seen a Gray Jay this year and totally enjoy them. Sunrise Campground (vehicle permit required for access to White Mountain Apache Land) gave us our best experiences of the trip. 

We saw four (4) GRAY JAYS here. 

After one of the jays swooped past my head a few times leaving me puzzled by its behavior (more curious than threatening), Jeanne suggested I hold a peanut in my hand for it to come right to me. None ever got that brave, but they came so close to my feet I couldn't focus my camera on them. Jeanne took a nice series of shots of my tempting them to my hand.

Me, missing the shot as the Gray Jay senses the camera lens and lifts off

Jeanne planned to return home after this stop, so she stayed a bit longer than Marcee and I and had the good fortune of seeing a herd of 15 elk. Photos below are cows on the move.

As we drove out from the campground, we spotted some elk, too. Three (bull, cow and calf) were in the forest not terribly far from the car. I focused on the bull elk with a nice rack for the photo.

As we drove FR87 over to Greer from the White Mountain Apache land, we spotted many Western Bluebirds and Yellow-rumped Warblers in the grasslands and some others, totaling five species during the 6-mile drive.

At Greer, after Marcee and I ate our lunch at the picnic table across from the Rendezvous Cafe, we headed for Butler Canyon Nature Trail to see if we could find the American Three-toed Woodpecker that would be a Life Bird for her. Under storm cloud-cover, birds throughout the forest were scarce. But we took our time, walking slowing, checking all the trees, particularly the burned ones, for our target bird. We managed to come up with “just” a HAIRY WOODPECKER. (always a good sighting for desert dwellers) Our best sighting was a male NORTHERN HARRIER fly-over that took my breath away. When I called it the Gray Ghost, Marcee wanted to know what I was talking about.  When I mentioned Harrier, she, of course, said it was not the correct behavior. She was right, it was higher than the trees; that’s how we spotted it. But it was on the eBird list for that location, solidifying the sighting. Surrounding grasslands would enable the bird to fly low to find its prey.

With one more stop on our agenda, Sipe White Mountain Wildlife Area, we headed back through Eager toward our destination. But a tree full of TURKEY VULTURES brought the car to a stop, so I could count and take photos.  

Turkey Vultures roosting in a cottonwood tree along Central Avenue in Eager

On our way again, Marcee soon stopped again at the sight of utility wires full of YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRDS. We estimated 100, possibly conservative.
Observed at Central Avenue & Udall in Eager (on our way to Sipe WA)

By car, we birded the long entrance road (5 miles) to Sipe Wildlife Area before heading out on the trails near the Visitor’s Center. Interestingly, birds were quieting down for the evening and a beautiful hush enveloped us.

Best birds we detected here were a GREEN-TAILED TOWHEE and a MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRD.

Mountain Bluebird

Mountain Bluebird (toward dusk)
This day (Saturday) was our only full birding day.  

The next morning, we birded Woodland Lake Park in Pinetop before heading home and were delighted to find the reliable LEWIS’S WOODPECKER sunning on its usual early-morning snag.

We did stop at Boyce Thompson Arboretum to eat lunch in the picnic area. When I saw Becky of the grounds crew, I asked her if they had any Leather-leaf Acacia.  (Plant Sale coming up!) She suggested it might be just the plant for my front six-foot eastment. Marcee and I found the several plants within the Arboretum following her good verbal instructions.  Yes. I will see if I can get one of them at the sale next Friday. While we were doing that, Marcee spotted a beautiful RUFOUS HUMMINGBIRD but I made no list for that location.  

That was a wrap for the weekend— with a count of 60 species!  And an array of autumn's changing leaves. 

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