Peppersauce Canyon, Oracle, Pinal County, Arizona

Black Friday, November 25th
Maybe it's the unusual name that made me want to explore Peppersauce Canyon, but its location fascinated me, too.  And, I'm always up for an adventure.

An early miner at what is now a forest service campground claimed that his hot sauce disappeared one night. I imagine that story went around among the tungsten miners enough times to become part of the history of the place. Apparently, no one ever confessed to the "take" or no one else was around to have taken it. 

Located in the Coronado National Forest, Peppersauce Canyon is accessed from the town of Oracle where you turn onto Mt. Lemmon Road. Normally, I drive all the way into Tucson to use the south route up Mt. Lemmon on Catalina Highway but have noted there the junction that leads to Peppersauce Canyon, on the north side of the mountain, that appears to be very steep.

A brisk 48°F when I began birding with fourteen other birders from Tucson Audubon, including Bob and Trudy Bowers, our leaders, the sun was just hitting the tops of the very large and broad Arizona sycamores in the campground at 8:15 a.m. Elevation: 4700 feet.
The campground is located next to Peppersauce Creek, running dry this time of year but water must be underground considering the size of the sycamores.

Their leaves, brown and yellow, as big as my hand were falling gently to the ground. RUBY-CROWNED KINGLETS were smaller than the leaves and looking very yellow this morning.
Top of an Arizona Sycamore, too broad at the base to photograph

Only a few campers were present of whom, a young couple (strong British accent) told us that the wild turkeys had already passed through. But the place was quiet and we spent more than an hour tracking down desert birds (ROCK WREN, PHAINOPEPLA, VERDIN, CACTUS WREN, CANYON TOWHEE) in and around the hackberries, shrubs, agave and prickly pear.  A RED-NAPED SAPSUCKER and a couple RED-SHAFTED NORTHERN FLICKERS got our attention while many ACORN WOODPECKERS busied themselves in the live oaks and sycamores. 

Acorn Woodpecker

From the campground, we walked up the gently-rising slope of Rice Peak Trail, a road accessible to high clearance vehicles with 4-wheel drive and, as it turned out, a couple "quads". By the time we reached the spring, a mile above the campground, we had seen many more birds than I was able to photograph.

On the upward trail, we saw more NORTHERN FLICKERS, a couple RED-TAILED HAWKS, 

Among the best sightings were a HERMIT THRUSH that perched on an open branch and a RUFOUS-CROWNED SPARROW that did likewise.

Hermit Thrush (above and below) 

As we approached the spring, I was surprised to see cows in the area.

The Spring is tapped to send water down Peppersauce Creek
As we turned to head down the trail, three horseback riders showed up. We enjoyed a good chat with them.

Arizona Velvet Ash

Arizona Velvet Ash
Returning from about 5,000 to 4,700'

Best and unexpected bird sightings for me included PRAIRIE FALCON, NORTHERN HARRIER and WESTERN BLUEBIRDS.  (all too distant for photos).

Having spent over four hours exploring and birding Peppersauce Canyon, I was thrilled with what I found there. So, thank you Bob and Prudy for the trip (and the ginger cookies).

Now, I just need to find someone with a four-wheel drive who wants to take on that northern dirt road to its high point junction on Mount Lemmon!!

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Rare Birds in Nifty Places -- Maricopa, Pima & Santa Cruz Counties, Arizona

Cooler temperatures have enabled me to bird into the afternoon hours this month. On Veterans Day (11/11/16), I birded with Hinde in the morning and on the way home from Needle Rock Recreation Area along the Verde River, we stopped to see if we could locate a rare GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROW, recently reported at the same location and spot that it visited last year at Phon D. Sutton Recreation Area long the Lower Salt River near the parking lot. And, there it was!  In basic plumage, its golden crown is not as bright as it is in breeding plumage.

November 11, 2016
Golden-crowned Sparrow [two above photos]

By Monday, there had been a report of a bird I really like - RED-BREASTED SAPSUCKER. A male, it returned to its same tree as last year in Scottsdale Ranch Park. Although I saw it last year, it’s not an everyday bird, so I wanted to visit with it again.

Red-breasted Sapsucker 11/14/16  [two above photos]

That evening, from my front porch, I was able to snap a photo of the Super Moon as it rose over the Superstition Mountains. 

November 14th is a memorable day for me since I gave birth to my first child, David, while living in Japan in the early 1960s. (Johnson Air Base, so he's a USA citizen)


Thursday, November 17th - LIFE-BIRD-DAY
After seeing the Golden-crowned Sparrow and Red-breasted Sapsucker that had been Lifers for me when I saw them in 2015, I was thrilled to hear of a potential new Life Bird at Veterans Oasis Park in Chandler, about a 30-minute drive from home. The only draw back was that I had both a morning and early afternoon appointment the day after it was first reported, so instead of arriving at sunrise, I didn’t get there until early afternoon.

Not a good time for birding (they’ve already foraged all morning and won’t start up again until late afternoon), I did come upon other birders also looking for the GROOVE-BILLED ANI that probably came north from Mexico. After spending over an hour on the trails with Jeff Ritz and his mother; Laura Ellis arrived and joined us for another go-round on the trails for an equal amount of time. (Jeff’s Mom eventually went off to wait for Jeff). 

Range maps in birding field guides for the Groove-billed Ani do not show it coming into Arizona. The last time the tropical GROOVE-BILLED ANI had been seen in Arizona was in 2012 at Sweetwater Wetlands in Tucson and, before that, in 2005 at Gilbert Water Ranch, so I had no intention of leaving without giving my all to find it.

Later in the afternoon, the three of us were thrilled to see top-birder Tommy Debardeleben who had just arrived to search for the rarity. He was soon joined by buddies, Mark Ochs and Tyler Loomis with whom we all walked the trails (again!). With six of us looking for this big but stealthy bird, how could we miss it???  Again, I walked more miles on the same trails and through the empty pond basins finding lots of mud but no Rare Bird.  So, when we stopped to chat to figure out where to look or go next, Tyler said, “What’s that? — It’s our bird!”  Movement within a palo verde tree gave up the big GROOVE-BILLED ANI as it stepped stealthily from one branch to another eating insects while staying camouflaged against the many raptors that circled the park. 

With that, we all tried to get decent photos of this rare tropical long-tailed blackbird with a thick beak having parallel grooves running its length. After five miles of walking many of the same trails, I was thrilled to pieces to get just a few reasonable photos of the GROOVE-BILLED ANI. With two toes forward and two back, it is a member of the Cuckoo family, as is the Greater Roadrunner.

Friday, November 18th: Madera Canyon
After having walked over 5 miles yesterday in search of the Groove-billed Ani, I waited until after commuter rush hour to head south to one of my favorite distant birding spots, Madera Canyon.

To walk Proctor Road beginnng at noontime seemed bizzare; that’s usually when I stop for the day. Most birds were hunkered; I got few photos but I could hear some and managed to accumulate a nice list. Best on that list was BLACK-CAPPED GNATCATCHER that I heard early on but managed to see it only when I returned from the loop trail. Two of them were very vocal with their “mee-ur” calls. Not in breeding plumage, both small gnatcatchers were blue-gray on top with grayish/white underparts. The male did not have its distinctive black cap of springtime. It’s long thin beak and white underside of tail (when closed) confirmed my ID. So, I had both vocal and visual identification of this rare (but continuing Mexican bird). It likes thickets and streams and that’s where I found it— between where Proctor Road crosses the paved trail and Madera Creek.

Black-capped Gnatcatcher

Another awesome sighting at Madera Canyon was at the top of the dead-end road at the Mt. Wrightson trailhead and picnic area. Each time I take visitors to this place, we usually plan a lunch at a certain spot I like. Today, having already eaten, I walked over to just look around. Birding instinct?    Look what I found!

Not a usual sighting at this location, the two AZURE BLUEBIRDS above are Eastern Bluebirds hailing from Mexico. In Arizona, these birds are known as AZURE BLUEBIRDS...and here they were, not in Patagonia much farther south where I can usually find a few, but at the top of Madera Canyon.  
** The entry into eBird was rejected and I was told they were Western Bluebirds. Take a look at your favorite field guide and tell me what you think.
National Geographic 6th Edition: p. 396 shows subspecies fulva (southwestern)
Sibley Field Guide, 2014 p. 433 includes Arizona Bluebird.
Kaufman Field Guide 2000 - uses photos. Compare his Southwest race of Eastern Bluebird to the female photo shown first above. p. 256.
I'm far from expert, so I've changed my eBird listed as requested but I've never taken photos of Western Bluebirds that looked like this.

Saturday, November 19th:  Birding with Chris Rohrer
Early Saturday morning, I met Chris in Green Valley from where we headed south to the deAnza Trail in Tubac to look for the rare Worm-eating Warbler that had been seen by several birders in that area. A brisk 48°F when we entered the trail, we stayed long enough to get warmed up. While we never laid eyes on that rare species, the 39 other species we spotted provided more than ample pleasure.

Next stop was Santa Gertrudis Lane where the "treats" showed up. As we walked into the area, birds were busy with pyracantha and other berries along a thick hedgerow. One that I thought might be a very late-staying MacGillivray's Warbler turned out to be a species of Orange-crowned Warbler I had never heard of, let alone seen.

Orange-crowned Warbler - Oresta species with gray head and long slightly curved bill.
Our expected species of OCWA in Arizona is Lutescens, mostly all dull orange/yellow.
[Photo by Chris Rohrer]
Chris Rohrer, my birding bud for the day in Santa Cruz County

Soon after the excitement of the new-to-me species of Orange-crowned Warbler, we walked to the Santa Cruz River before taking the walking trail.  There we saw a big black bird on the  muddy flat beside the river. When it saw us, it flew up and perched on a limb. Looking only at the tail (and a good reason we're not supposed to bird by color], I thought it was a Zone-tailed Hawk. (I didn't have a good look at the head.) But Chris said, "Nope. It's a Black Hawk!"  Hmmm. He could tell, he said, by its posture.  A juvenile!  Yikes, these young birds still get me every time. Instead of a mature Black Hawk's one wide white band across the tail that is also tipped with white, this bird had several bands down its tail.

Juvenile Common Black Hawk
It was quite distant when I took this photo, but after we got on the walking trail, it seemed to follow us and I was able to get a much closer photo with a front view.

Juvenile Common Black Hawk [two above photos]

Red-tailed hawk

In addition to the Common Black Hawk, we saw a Red-tailed Hawk (above), Chihauhuan Ravens and a female Hepatic Tanager on the Santa Gertrudis trail. It was a beautiful day for a walk and both Chris and I reveled in the fact that the summer heat appeared to be gone.

Chris on the trail
We made several other stops (Rio Rico and Amado Waste Treatment Plant) before heading back to Green Valley where I had parked my car.

Another awesome day of birding with 58 species, some of which were very unexpected.

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Salt River--Coon Bluff Recreation Area, Maricopa County, AZ

Monday, November 7th
Didn't get started birding until 7 a.m. (late for me) but a woman was already out picking up trash left over from family fun on the weekend. It was not her family trash; she told me she just feels like it needs to be done so she's being doing it on Mondays - and what a difference it makes in the overall appearance of the mesquite bosque picnic area.

The only other thing I noticed about that specific area was that it was devoid of ground cover -- that does not bode well for a healthy ecosystem. No grassy weeds; fewer insects; less food for birds and others, etc., etc.  We're all connected...until we aren't.  As the sandy banks of the river continue to erode, the river will spread wider and become more shallow; eventually, perhaps, unable to provide the water grasses that the horses enjoy. I'm no scientist but when I look at the relationships of one thing to the other, the area appears quite stressed right now.

Birds were still plentiful this morning so I spent a very pleasant two hours walking east for a mile and a half from the bluff.  

No longer in its spotted breeding plumage, a Spotted Sandpiper teetered on a rock and then a floating board in the river below the bluff. Note the white of its belly reaching up toward its shoulder.

First Spotted Sandpiper (below the bluff)
Same bird as above; different camera setting

A male Ladder-backed Woodpecker was already searching for grubs in a broken off tree, below.

Two Belted Kingfishers patrolled the river appearing to take turns going east, then west, and repeat. Eventually, it was only the male that hung around, giving me a brief photo op.

Sometimes, I just laugh at what I see. I know herons and egrets roost in trees but this may be the first time I've seen one perched up like an ornament on top of a cottonwood.

Several Gila Woodpeckers were active in the mesquites in that first hour. Below is a female GIWO.

Still within that same area, before reaching the low-lying inlet area often used for fishing, I saw a bird that kept me guessing. It looked too big for a Green Heron; it had the markings of an American Bittern that's 10" bigger than a Green; but I've only ever seen them in marshy settings not out in the open along a river.  But that may be my lack of experience. So, below is the mystery bird.  In photo #1 below, it looks mostly like a Green Heron but also shows the "hump" at the shoulder, an ID help for American Bittern.

Short of experience with Juvenile Green Heron as well as AMBI, this appeared to be taller than most Green Herons I've seen, including one other there this morning. American Bittern has wide brown stripes on its neck as does this bird.
I've learned that an earlier report of an American Bittern sighting was corrected to be that of a juvie Green Heron, so I'll go with that for this bird that looks terribly hefty for a Green but not quite right for AMBI. This bird was on the opposite shore (north side of the river) from me.

The farther I walked, the more interesting birds I found. At a ponded area, there were Killdeer and one Greater Yellowlegs and a Pied-billed Grebe. Farther upstream, six Greater Yellowlegs were "tew-tew-tewing" as they foraged the water.

The second Spotted Sandpiper I saw was out in the shallow middle of the river not far from the Greater Yellowlegs. Its frequent teetering back and forth is a helpful identification marker for this winter-plumaged non-spotted sandpiper. Note also the brown patch down its shoulder.

The best bird I spotted was this WILSON'S SNIPE below. I didn't know what flew out from shore as I walked on the bank trail and had a heck of a time finding it.  Photo below.  Finally, its stripes stood out. It reminded me of when my granddaughter, Megan, visited a couple years back. She had picked it out on the opposite shore and asked, "What's that weird bird?"  It really is weirdly cool!

Wilson's Snipe

After seeing the snipe, I was ready to turn back but two other women came my direction thinking I was there to see the horses. They assured me they were up ahead just around the corner, so I walked a bit farther to see how many might be there.  I think it was a herd of about twelve.

Walking along the running river, seeing the various birds (30 species) and watching this one herd (of many) wild horses calmed my Election Day (tomorrow) anxiety. My ballot was cast early and the voting drama tomorrow will play out as it will. 

Click on the link below to see species list I posted with eBird. 

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Riparian Preserve at Gilbert Water Ranch, Maricopa County, AZ

Saturday, November 5th
After two days of much needed rain, it felt good to wake up knowing that I could go birding in cooler weather after such a long hot summer.

Much traffic on US 60 at 6 a.m. made me wonder what unknown event might be happening but I'm thinking Arizona (at least around here) just wakes up early and gets out and about.
Still too dark to really bird when I arrived at Gilbert Water Ranch (GWR) at 6:15, I counted 20 cars in the parking lot and took one of the last spaces in the east end.

Joggers, dog-walkers, fitness walkers, photographers, birders and just people going for a walk filled the trails.

Seeing no rarities during my 2.5 mile walk in three hours, I decided to just post photos of some of the bird activity I witnessed. They do fascinate me.

When it seemed light enough, I lifted my camera for these two takes.

Loggerhead Shrike (although its range is listed as "year round", I haven't seen one at GWR for quite a while)

Canada Geese lifting off from Pond 7
Although many of the ponds contained shallow water mud-flat habitat, it was filled with waterfowl arriving for the winter (teal, pintail, shovelers, and dowitchers) including some skittish flocks of Least Sandpiper.

Least Sandpiper

Rarely do I take photos of the super-abundant Great-tailed Grackles, but today I found one bathing not far from where I stood.

An Osprey overhead is always a welcome sight.

While some birds are out in the wide open like the Osprey, the Black-crowned Night Herons  are hidden in the shrubs and trees like this one juvenile below. Today, I spotted two adult and two juvie BCNH.

Juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron

Also perched in a tree was a Northern Flicker that, despite the sunlight, was showing that it was Red-shafted female with tan malar stripe and gray head.

Although I missed one pond, I finally found where many many Mallards were swimming about.  

Long-legged shorebirds have always fascinated me.

American Avocet in basic (winter) plumage

Black-necked Stilt with bubble-gum pink legs

Black-necked Stilts preening

Before I wrapped up for the morning, I spotted this Snowy Egret looking for breakfast.

To view my eBird checklist of 55 species, click the link below.  So glad to be able to pick up and go out for a couple hours in our very birdy East Valley.

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