White Mountains, Navajo & Apache Counties, AZ

Friday, Saturday & Sunday, March 24, 25 & 26, 2017
Having never birded the White Mountains this early in the year, I wasn't certain what I might find in the way of birds but wanted to share this fantastic location with birder friend, Glenda, before she returned to Toronto the first week in April. I planned a Big Loop by driving up Route 60 through the Salt River Canyon (which she had never seen) and returning via the Mogollon Rim through Payson.

A big plus by arriving so early in the season was the amount of water this year in all the lakes and marshes we visited. The downside was the lack of accessibility to a number of places as you'll read below.

Day #1: Friday, 3/24/17
At the Pintail Lake site by 9:15 a.m., we visited the marsh first. In dry summer months, I've walked through this area, but today it, too, was a lake. And a PEREGRINE FALCON was perched.


Pintail Lake, itself, was full of ducks including CANVASBACK, REDHEAD, BUFFLEHEAD, CINNAMON TEAL as well as the usual NORTHERN SHOVELER, RING-NECKED and RUDDY DUCKS.

REDHEAD ducks (Drake & Hen)  [Photo: Glenda Jones]

Walking out from the Lake on the concrete trail, I spotted a TOWNSEND'S SOLITAIRE that Glenda was able to photograph nicely.


LYMAN LAKE STATE PARK, located a bit south of St. Johns, provided not only waterfowl but passerines. With the ground quite wet, even birds on the shore were quite distant from the road we traveled. Although we ate our lunch there, as any good birder knows, that doesn't mean we stopped birding. The place held our attention for over three (3) hours.

AMERICAN WHITE PELICAN (bulb on upper bill appears during mating season only)

Among the songbirds throughout the campground area was this beautiful MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRD.
MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRD  [Photo: Glenda Jones]
Although it was late in the afternoon by the time we reached Wenima Wildlife Area, I was surprised to see so much bird activity very close to the parking lot. As we would discover, that's where most of the action occurred. The CURVE-BILLED THRASHER, a yard bird to us in the desert, was considered a rarity on the eBird check list!


WOODHOUSE'S SCRUB JAY (above & below)

Wrapping up our birding for the day at Becker Lake, we spotted three (3) COMMON GOLDENEYE swimming off by themselves, away from the major flotillas of AMERICAN COOT and RUDDY DUCK.

Tracking down the COMMON GOLDENEYE in a cove, I was able to snap a few good photos.  


All three COMMON GOLDENEYE on Becker Lake

A BALD EAGLE and an OSPREY had been perched in a snag across the lake from the time we arrived.  Too far for photos from our position, we then drove down Becker Lake Road where I attempted to capture these two raptors in the same tree.

OSPREY (upper left); BALD EAGLE; (lower right)

While watching the raptors, we were enjoying the sound of several WESTERN MEADOWLARKS singing.


Darkness began to creep upon us.  So, we headed to our lodging and my favorite dinner spot to wrap up the highly enjoyable day of birding.

DAY #2: Saturday, March 25, 2017
Always an interesting birding spot, we started the day at the South Fork of the Little Colorado River, accessed off of State Route 260.
Already 8:30 a.m., I was surprised we needed to work as hard as we did to get fourteen (14) species. We managed to spot three woodpeckers (RED-NAPED SAPSUCKER, LADDER-BACKED WOODPECKER and NORTHERN FLICKER). One MEXICAN JAY flew past us and BUSHTITs hid away in the junipers. AMERICAN ROBIN was the most common and available bird.

Birding adrenalin didn't kick in until we crossed the bridge over the South Fork and continued up to the campground. PINYON JAYS were foraging on the slope across the road from the campground. 


Considering that the Pinyon Jays are often fly-over flocks calling out, I felt particularly good about Glenda being able to get such good looks at a LIFE BIRD.

Another good find was this HAIRY WOODPECKER.


Visit to this area just isn't complete without a photo of one of the dilapidated cabins from another era.
That's Glenda checking it out.

Driving then to the Sunrise area, we headed directly for Sheep's Crossing to see if we could locate an American Dipper and/or Gray Jays. With a barred gate across the highway after the turn toward the ski resort, we couldn't get to our destination on this route. So, I hoped we could access it from the cut-over road from Greer.

Instead, we returned to the General Store to pick up our requisite permit to go to the Sunrise Campground to search for Gray Jays. The dirt road up still retained a heavy layer of dry untouched snow although Glenda was game for giving it a go. After wheel-spinning on our first attempt and snow all the way up the road ahead of us, I opted for turning back to use the permit to check out the lake instead. No need for stuck-in-snow drama when lots of other birds are available.

Winds at Sunrise Lake were so high, white caps were challenging even the fishermen! Glenda set her spotting scope on its low legs so it was protected by the side of the car and called into me the species she was seeing. Then, through the windshield, I could locate them in the distance across the lake or in the end closest to us. One of our best sightings at this location was another MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRD flying from its perch on a fence post, out to seek food, kiting over a hunting spot, diving, then returning to its perch. That's just plain awesome!

Leaving the Sunrise area to check out Greer, signage at the cross-over road to Sheep's Crossing stated that the road was blocked at that far end. 

So, we decided to check out Benny Creek CG on the Greer road only to find that it, too, had its iron gate lowered to prevent access. Seemed like a good quiet place for lunch; little wind but few birds. Now, we had three (3) sites that were unaccessible (Sheep's Crossing, Sunrise CG, and Benny Creek CG)! But, the area is loaded with good spots...more than enough for a long weekend.

Greer Lakes proved to be a worthwhile stop with GADWALL, BUFFLEHEAD, RUDDY DUCKS, NORTHERN FLICKER, and best of all, AMERICAN CROW, a bird not seen in the Phoenix Valley.

With Glenda scheduled for knee surgery in June, our stop at Greer's Butler Canyon Nature Trail was intended to find a Williamson's Sapsucker from the parking lot area without going up the trail. Nada. 

After a drive through town to the end of the road, we headed south on 260 to Eager and on to Sipe Wildlife Area. Signage there indicated that the place was closed until May 31st, but we drove in along grasslands quite a distance before realizing that the wind was keeping the birds really low.  (#4 unaccessible)

Knowing that Nelson Reservoir was farther south along the main road we arrived there at 4:45 p.m. with some wind, lots of waves but no white caps on the water. But it had turned really cold -- cold enough that the balaclavas came out of their bags. From the north end of the lake, we spotted COMMON GOLDENEYE and BUFFLEHEAD (their white helping us locate them!). Driving to the south end at the very wet marsh proved worthwhile in that a VIRGINIA RAIL made itself known not only its kek kek kek call, but by its grunt. Rarely hearing its grunt, that alone made the trip to this location well worth it for me.  After 5 p.m. when we left there, we returned to Springerville to eat, post lists and grab some shut eye.

Day #3: Sunday, March 26, 2017 (My sister's birthday)
While Glenda packed the last of her items into the car for our trip home, I grabbed my bins and camera to be sure I was seeing what I thought I was seeing without my binoculars. Yes! 
CEDAR WAXWINGs in a tree at the corner of the rear parking lot of Reed's Lodge.

CEDAR WAXWING (above and below)

Two Cedar Waxwing

Once on the road, we headed to Pinetop's Woodland Lake Park. It's rare when I arrive at this spot and don't see our target bird. Right on schedule, we picked out a LEWIS'S WOODPECKER on a snag tree off to the right prior to crossing the footbridge. Another Life Bird for Glenda.

LEWIS'S WOODPECKER (Note its colors: green back, red belly, gray collar and dark head)
Although there were no waterfowl on the Lake that we hadn't already seen on this trip, we had a spring-returning OSPREY do several loops over it. Before we left over an hour later, there was a second Osprey joining the first one.

OSPREY checking out the lake

A handful of VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOWS cut through the sky too high to photograph and almost too high to ID. But when one perched, it became evident that we had called it correctly.


Continuing onward through Lakeside and Show Low, we turned off for Fool Hollow Lake State Park where we were immediately treated to an aerial contest between an Osprey and two mature Bald Eagles.  The Osprey had been harassing the eagles until one of the larger birds turned and gave chase to the Osprey who moved away to circle the lake again.

When I caught sight of a RED-NAPED SAPSUCKER, Glenda was off in another section of the junipers but I managed a couple poor photos, one trying to show its nape; the other its very red throat (male) without a complete black outline (thus,not a YBSA).


In total, we spent about an hour there before getting serious about driving home. Although Glenda wanted to know just where the Mogollon Rim began, I wasn't quite sure.  Maybe at Heber-Overguard?  We certainly knew where it ended when the highway dropped, then dropped some more.

We pulled off at Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery to see if any American Dippers remained there. If so, they stayed hidden while a LINCOLN'S SPARROW behaved just like one! It slipped out from behind the thick green leaves of ground cover beside the "waterfall" and hopped from one rock to another! The Dippers must have departed for the summer...or just in time to avoid the weekend crowds. We didn't stay long either!

With no further stops, we arrived home before 5 p.m., knowing that our escape from decent weather in the Valley had been well worth our effort.  Except for high winds on Saturday afternoon, we enjoyed blue skies and white clouds for the duration. Cold mornings turned into 60°F days when we could opt for going in whichever direction we might find birds.

Four of my regular birding stops were closed or impassable on this trip so I know I'll be back in the White Mountains come summertime. 

I was glad to be able to explore the above areas this early in the season. Summer months will find me taking day or overnight trips up there every now and again as I never know what might show up!

eBird links for 14 checklists are below showing the 80 species we identified.

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  1. A couple of amazing birding days with another woman who loves the whole notion of being outdoors with nature. Thanks Babs!

  2. You did all the driving, so it was a win-win!