Las Cienegas National Conservation Area & Sierra Vista, Pima and Cochise Counties, AZ

Thursday/Friday July 27 & 28, 2017
Driving 180 miles to see some sparrows? Yes, but these weren’t just ordinary sparrows, they were “monsoon” sparrows that come to southern Arizona to breed during the summer months. Need to go when the males of one species arrive and begin to sing or do their flight displays…a miniature version of a Eurasian Skylark.

Sue Moreland joined in for the fun. With an early start from Phoenix, we started listening for sparrows at 7:30 a.m. in the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area near Sonoita, off of SR 83.  

Under cloud cover, we stopped within 100 yards of the entrance to listen to BOTTERI’S SPARROW singing on the north side of the road. Since we were barely into the grasslands, I drove a bit farther before stopping but this was way prior to the signage for the area. One was at the top of a mesquite singing; we both knew its song that wraps up with a bouncing-ball trill. 

BOTTERI'S SPARROW, slight rufous on top of wing, larger grayer bill than Cassin's Sparrow

There’s another sparrow that arrives with the monsoon, but it was quiet. In the deep grass across from the Botteri’s Sparrows, small birds apparently were foraging and running like mice through the grass, too thick to find. We knew what they might be…but didn’t want to go tromping through their territory, so moved on with the car.

CASSIN’S KINGBIRDS were perched in the mesquites, flying out to grab insects (some big like dragonflies) and returning to its perch to eat.

Several EASTERN MEADOWLARKS (Lilian’s subspecies) were singing from perches on shrubs or the scrubby mesquites.

Two LOGGERHEAD SHRIKES were hunting from an overhead utility line. I haven’t seen many of them this year, so that felt like a very good sighting, too.

Seldom can we enjoy a lot of bird activity without a hawk showing up. Sue spotted the SHARP-SHINNED HAWK. I caught its gray under color (making it a juvenile). 

Before reaching the turnoff for the Empire Ranch property, we began to hear the CASSIN’S SPARROWS singing on the south side of the dirt road. For some reason, I really like this bird. Maybe it’s the song that enables me to ID it. It starts out with some clear whistles, then brief ‘song’ that ends with two low notes. If it sings without including those two low notes, I’d never recognize it, since I see it only about once a year. To me, those two low notes = “10/4” = or “over and out” or “the end”. 

Fortunately, it was singing that song from the top of a short shrub, then flying up into the air about six feet, before fluttering down to land on another shrub about ten feet from where it started. Others, farther out in the grasslands were doing likewise, so we heard more and more male CASSIN’S SPARROWs beginning their flight displays. 

Rapt with enjoyment, we watched for quite some time. Photos can’t capture the feelings of the moment and, in this case, I did a poor job of even photographing the small birds,that were quite distant, hidden in shrubs, perched briefly in the open, or up in the air with their flight display.

CASSIN'S SPARROW, shorter pointy bill (than Botteri's), faint eye ring
Since we planned to drive all the way through Las Cienegas to exit at the South entrance, we didn’t take time to visit Empire Ranch. The action, for me, was in the grasslands and I wanted to spend as much time out there as possible. An hour and a half had already disppeared!

Sue was finding birds, too.  After turning away from the north entrance and heading south, she spotted LARK SPARROWs in the road that flew to nearby shrubs.  

The turn-off to see the Black-tailed Prairie Dogs (released into this area) was quite muddy, so we continued on the main road that was passable in my little sedan. But we stopped long enough to get our binoculars on the site where Sue counted nine (9) of them up and out in the open.

A SWAINSON’S HAWK flew overhead. Again, that’s not a common bird in the east Phoenix area, so I’m always excited to see them.

SWAINSON'S HAWK (from my file; sky very dark with clouds today)

There were more BOTTERI’S and CASSIN’S SPARROWs singing away. 

And now! We heard numerous GRASSHOPPER SPARROWs.  My identification problem with them is how do you know if an insect is calling from within the tall grasses?  Or, whether it’s the sparrow.

It helps when that flat-headed bird finds a low branch to sing its very buzzy song.

At the very full ponds (tank), we spotted a GREAT EGRET, SUMMER TANAGER, male and female VERMILION FLYCATCHER, and a BROWN-CRESTED FLYCATCHER.

Sue, leading on the trail into Sacaton Flats with its special grass

After spending four hours at the beautiful grasslands of Las Cienegas, we reached the South Entrance and exited onto SR 82. Our stomachs knew it was going on lunch time.  So, when we arrived at San Pedro House in Sierra Vista, we took immediate advantage of their picnic ramada to eat lunch while enjoying BLUE GROSBEAK, PYRRHULOXIA, and the calls of WHITE-WINGED and INCA DOVEs.

On our brief walk to the San Pedro River, we spotted a couple flycatchers (ASH-THROATED & BROWN CRESTED) along with a flock of BARN SWALLOWs. But our visit was cut short by lightening and thunder. We had seen the storm cloud dropping lots of rain south of us (Bisbee?) and it was quickly moving its water-laden darkness our way.  

Our next planned stop at Ash Canyon B&B appeared to be relatively storm-cloud free, although the city itself was under cloud cover. So, we wrapped up our afternoon there (2 hours) watching a variety of hummingbirds.

ANNA'S HUMMINGBIRD (male and female)

Missing is the photo of our target bird: LUCIFER HUMMINGBIRD that came to Feeder #1 four times between 3:25 & 3:40 p.m. where it stayed for long periods of time. Would have been perfect for a photo if it hadn't been all the way across the feeder circle away from me! Enjoyed watching it for such long periods of time and am posting photos from previous years' visits to this same bird-friendly area (for birds and humans) where this particular hummingbird returns each year.

LUCIFER HUMMINGBIRD (file photo from last year)
Next stop was Ramsey Canyon where we stayed at Sue's sister and brother-in-law's house for the night (Terri & Scott). Their big patio is also full of hummingbird and other bird feeders so we continued birding there listening to approaching thundershowers. A streak of lightening followed by an immediate clap of thunder sent Sue and I running for the house, dinner in hand!

The next morning, we walked from the house up to the Nature Conservancy Preserve in Ramsey Canyon, then on up and around Bledsoe Loop. All of that took about 3.5 hours (covering 2.2 miles) finding good birds along the way. Having lost interest in trying to get good photos (especially in the forest), it was fun to watch behaviors of the SULPHUR-BELLIED FLYCATCHERs, paired up and chasing around; the WESTERN WOOD-PEWEEs perched up and singing plus one going to and from a nest; the many BRIDLED TITMICE at the cherry tree; the HUTTON'S VIREO with its one-note song; plus an ARIZONA WOODPECKER and a ZONE-TAILED HAWK. 

Terri had a late breakfast of delicious quiche waiting for us back at the house. We called it lunch and headed on to our next target bird in St. David. Terri and Scott's hospitality had been wonderful; a delightful visit.

Now, could we find the MISSISSIPPI KITE that visits St. David just about every year in the summer months?  It would be a Life Bird for Sue; and I just like to see it but it's not the easiest bird to find. Mostly, it seems like happenstance. So we drove around on the known roads to find it (Golden Bell and Miller). Heard it on Miller but it was in a densely leafed-out tree on private property. After spending well over an hour searching for it, we concluded we'd cut our losses, drive back up to Rt. 80, where I slowly made our way through St. David. Seeing quite a back-up of traffic behind me, I pulled over at Dragoon Vista. Looking up yet again, what did we see but a MISSISSIPPI KITE giving chase to a Turkey Vulture. Yay!  Sue was ecstatic!  And, so was I at that point!!

MISSISSIPPI KITE (last year's photo from St.David)

Nothing like a solid birding adventure (86 species) in Southeastern Arizona where the temperature never rose higher than the low 80s.

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Santa Cruz Flats, Pinal County, AZ

Thursday, July 20, 2017
Desert birding in our summer months calls for early rising. Usually, I look for shady (using the term loosely) locations, but today, it was a potential beast: Santa Cruz Flats, extending south of Eloy all the way to the Santa Cruz River — a great expanse of open land between the Sawtooth Mountains (west) and Picacho Peak (east).

Who would even think of going out there in mid-July?? Well, Dr. Dave Pearson (ASU) noticed it was an under-birded area and when he discovered 44 TROPICAL KINGBIRDS (or more) in early June, he decided to follow up to discover if there might be fledglings. Lois Lorenz, Kathe Anderson and I joined him on his search.

Did I mention the active monsoon season we’ve been enjoying? Not only does it bring humidity, but this year, lots of thundershowers and extended rainfall. With only a few paved roads through the Flats, the dusty dirt roads might just be a slip and slide mud experience. So, I was thinking the trip might be short-lived.

Stopping first at Arizona City Lake, we began our bird count for the day with thirty-one (31) waterfowl and desert species in half an hour (5:30-6:00 a.m.)

Although we had rain the previous night in the East Valley (Phoenix), the dirt roads within the Flats were dry — but not dusty. Sweet! Not even mud puddles!

SWAINSON’S HAWK (9), both adult and immature, at various locations, often perched in the fields. This immature was really far out in the field but still easier for me to try to photograph than one flying overhead.

We saw more BLUE GROSBEAK on overhead wires than in trees or on the ground.
In the most arid areas, we had some good desert birds including GREATER ROADRUNNER, BELL'S VIREO, BLACK-TAILED GNATCATCHER, and LUCY'S WARBLER.
Along with the usual assortment of blackbirds (GREAT-TAILED GRACKLE, BROWN-HEADED COWBIRD, RED-WINGED and YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRDS), a BULLOCK'S and HOODED ORIOLE were present.
In six hours of birding, I need not list each bird we spotted, but the BURROWING OWLs always steal the show.

Our main purpose at the Flats was to determine if the TROPICAL KINGBIRDs had fledged any young. This is a bit farther north than TRKI are usually found and to be in such great numbers is mind-boggling. I'm lucky if I find one or two per year in the southern areas of the state.

What we found was that the TROPICAL KINGBIRD (24 counted) has a nifty song (trill) and a trill of a call, too. When we came upon its trees, one would fly out and over us before circling back down into the leafy pecan trees (on various roads). So, we could surmise that nesting was ongoing. The trill is short, sweet and catchy.

Note its gray head; pale throat and cheek. Upper breast is actually olive but sunlight is washing it out as it fades into yellow on the rest of its underparts. Wings and tail are brownish black with thin whitish edges on the tail feathers. Tail is slightly notched, not squared as in Western Kingbird. And, look at the size of the bill!  It is longer than or equal to its lore+eye. In Western Kingbird, the size of the bill is the size of the lore. And, not seen in the photo, the back of the TRKI is grayish washed with olive-green, not the pale gray back of the Western.

The bird sets itself apart from the WESTERN KINGBIRDs (18) both by song and by appearance.

WESTERN KINGBIRD - with wide white outer tail feathers
Another bird had us scratching our heads. The CLIFF SWALLOW. We've all seen CLIFF SWALLOWs that nest under bridges and fly out over bodies of water or fields with insects. But CLIFF SWALLOWs foraging on the turf of the various turf farms within the Flats? Interesting! 
Series of 3 photos of CLIFF SWALLOWS foraging at the Turf Farms

Dr. Pearson provided a conservative estimate for eBird of 2500 CLIFF SWALLOW.

Not only was it a day to remember with our 66 species count for the day, (4 separate eBird locations), it begged to be repeated. Will the nesting TROPICAL KINGBIRDS have young by next week?  Or, later?  Generally, the species migrates out of southern Arizona by the end of July up until September, so there is still time to check out the TRKI again before they take off for the more southern Americas.

R-L: Dave Pearson, Lois Lorenz and Kathe Anderson

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Pinetop-Lakeside, Navajo County, Arizona

DAY #1  Monday, July 10th
With a 5:15 a.m. departure from Scottsdale, seven birders joined a Desert Rivers Audubon field trip with Kathe Anderson to explore various locations (new to many of us) in the Pinetop/Lakeside area of the White Mountains.

Along the way, we stopped to stretch our legs at Christopher Creek before reaching the Mogollon Rim.Spending two (2) hours birding this area turned out to be one of our best!  Morning sky, however, was a photographic challenge that left much to be desired, but I’m posting anyway to give you an idea of the variety of species and the area we visited.

I counted 8 GREAT BLUE HERONs at their nests in this annual rookery tree
Usually loud and raucous, this ACORN WOODPECKER (below) was busy in this dead tree.

Two CASSIN'S KINGBIRDs flew in, perched briefly in the distance before taking off again.

Distant photo taken right before it, too, flew off.

It's not every day a HAIRY WOODPECKER is found feeding on the trail!

Puzzled briefly by this tail-wagging BLACK PHOEBE because of its overall brown appearance, we realized it was a juvenile.

While this next bird is difficult for me to photograph because of its usual flitting behavior, it was on an open limb preening this morning:

When birding gets slow, there are always options.

Maria in the lush Christopher Creek area
Super excited about our next sighting, the bird was perched high and far from us, but I hoped to capture the size and overall shape of this forest pigeon.

Details of its bright yellow bill and narrow white collar on it hind neck aren't really visible here.
BAND-TAILED PIGEON (Interior subspecies)
What you can see is that it is larger than our urban Rock Pigeon. Gray overall, the BAND-TAILED PIGEON is our last forest pigeon. A small flock of them later winged their way quickly and strongly through the trees beside our trail. 
Yellow bill barely visible here in poor lighting.
In photo above, its long neck and white nape collar are visible.
Same BAND-TAILED PIGEON before it flew off with the flock to check out another feeding place.
This forest pigeon captures my attention every time either by its uh-whoo (owl-like) sound or, better yet, by showing up as they did at Christopher Creek.

With a brief stop at Willow Springs Lake along the Mogollon Rim,

it was 1:40 p.m. by the time we reached our destination and decided to explore Rainbow Reservoir.  Checking out both sides of the lake provided various habitat from water to forest to cemetery to community.

Can you see the size of its lifted foot??

Juvenile WESTERN BLUEBIRD (above and below)

Whimsical art attracted our attention on a residential street:

A bird I didn't anticipate seeing at this location was a gem: LEWIS'S WOODPECKER.
A large woodpecker, its overall greenish/black topside is broken with a pale gray collar that continues down its chest leading to its pink belly. Its dark red face is outlined with the dark green/black feathering.

Looking over its shoulder

Since one side of the lake is overall privately owned, we were thrilled when "Turk" noticed us and invited us into his property -- all the way to the edge of the lake.
After finding 23 species there, we opted for checking into the hotel and doing one last but short foray on Billy Creek Trail. Due to clouds and dark sky, I didn't even carry my camera but it was my first time on this trail and I knew it should be good on our next visit, our third and final morning. Although a couple of us believe we heard the NORTHERN GOSHAWK, I didn't list it but waited for our longer trip into the forest. 

DAY #2 Tuesday, July 11th
Probably, what most of us will remember about Jacques Marsh is not the 31 species of birds we spotted, but the MUD! Walking around the entire marsh delivered a nice handful of waterfowl (CANADA GOOSE, GADWALL, MALLARD, CINNAMON TEAL, NORTHERN PINTAIL and RUDDY DUCK) and shoes getting heavy with mud!

Swallows soared, swooped and chirped above us. (VIOLET-GREEN, BARN AND CLIFF)

And, I should add that Don, who was in the White Mountains during this trip, joined us for today's adventures.

From the marsh came the staccato sound of young YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRDS begging, the cheery voice of the COMMON YELLOWTHROAT and the buzzy sound from the RED-WINGED BLACKBIRDS.

From the fields surrounding the marsh we could hear several WESTERN MEADOWLARKs singing and CHIPPING SPARROWs buzzing. The Prairie Dogs fascinated us, too, and Barb Meding researched to discover we were most likely seeing the Gunnison's Prairie Dogs since the only other species in Arizona are the Black-tailed whose population is greatly reduced and is seen (released) in the southeastern portion of the state.

RUDDY DUCK in breeding plumage including its blue bill

NORTHERN PINTAIL in non-breeding plumage
YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRDs (adult with full yellow head and juvenile still quite brown overall

Across the field came the voice of the WESTERN WOOD-PEWEE:

BROWN-HEADED COWBIRDs among the daisies (female)
Appears to be a mixed flock but mostly female BREWER'S BLACKBIRDs
Without color details, size and shape of WESTERN MEADOWLARK (pause between songs)
Spent a good bit of time cleaning our mud-laden shoes prior to getting back into our cars!

Next stop was Scott Reservoir. 

The only species that differed from those we saw at Jacques Marsh was the VESPER SPARROW.

So we moved quickly on to the nearby Ice Cave Trail. I'm not sure which was worse: the mud of Jacques Marsh or the small rocky surface of this environment upon which we pretty much made our own trails. Difficult to find steady footing for photos.

STELLER'S JAY (interior subspecies with white streaks on face)
Don, Kathe, Maria, Dana, Diane, Mary Joy and Sue
Same group where Don stepped out to take photo to include me on left end
Back down in civilization, we visited Woodland Lake Park for just twenty minutes before lightening and thunder sent us scampering back to the cars. Two and half hours later, we returned for some more good birding that included ten (10) LEWIS'S WOODPECKERs; a COOPER'S HAWK; MOUNTAIN CHICKADEE; WHITE-BREASTED and PYGMY NUTHATCH; WESTERN BLUEBIRDs and a swimming VIRGINIA RAIL!

AMERICAN COOT with young
AMERICAN COOT (Juvenile slightly older than the very young one
The very young and the juvenile AMERICAN COOT

LEWIS'S WOODPECKER (2 photos above)

We wrapped up the evening with an exploratory visit to the OLD HATCHERY TRAIL where our target bird (Red-faced Warbler) eluded us - no song; no sighting.

Don provided us with two good restaurant recommendations and joined us at Annie's (The Bistro at Annie's) for a delicious lunch.

For dinner, we also checked out his recommendation for The Lions Den noted for its wine burgers. Good time for all of us.

DAY #3 Wednesday, July 12th 
After more rain in the night, we hit Billy Creek Trail at 7 a.m. Birds of interest there included CORDILLERAN FLYCATCHER, PLUMBEOUS VIREO, TOWNSEND'S SOLITAIRE, GRACE'S WARBLER, BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAK and, a new species for us, a pair of HEPATIC TANAGERs.  

Before leaving the coolness and piney aroma of the mountains, we stopped at Pintail Lake in Show Low where we picked up our first JUNIPER TITMOUSE (2), got several good looks at male COMMON YELLOWTHROAT and an ASH-THROATED FLYCATCHER. Searching through thick reeds around the lake, we found the expected ducks beyond.

COMMON RAVENs in morning conversation
With a brief stop at Woods Canyon Lake (no list), we explored the edge of the Mogollon Rim and, after a rest stop, turned around at the Lake to head home. Arrived back in the East Valley at 5:30 p.m., with temps still at 108°F just in case anyone wonders why we head up the 'hill' so often.

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