I have been traveling across Arizona the past several days. I had planned a three day trip to extreme northern Arizona to work on the state and year list. I also had a client wishing a three day trip to pickup several lifers. My year list trip became two days because George, the client, found himself having to escape the east coast a day earlier than expected. And we found ourselves so successful the first day of his trip that I dropped him off at the airport before noon the second day. I did get the weekend off for some rest.
11 February 2014 Tuesday: Today I head to extreme northern Arizona. The main target is Black-capped Chickadee, however to make this trip worth the time & expense I need some extra motivation. The first boost in motivation comes from a wintering Tundra Swan at Willow Lake in Prescott. For years I have bypassed looking for swans, not this year. I arrive south of the south end of Willow Lake at 09:15, about an hour later than planned (got to love Phoenix traffic). I assumed that I would be able to scan the lake from the road. Wrong! I needed to walk a mile through a weedy field along a muddy trail and follow the trail up over a rock outcropping. From the top of the rocks I had a wonderful view of the lake, the sun was at my back, and no swan. I scanned the lake 4 to 5 times with the scope hoping that the swan would fly in from another lake nearby like the hundreds of Northern Shovelers were doing. On the scan that was to be the last before moving to the other lake; I find the swan. I take several camera and digiscope images, watch it for several minutes, and thank the Birding Gods before hustling back to my truck to continue this journey. About the time I clear the muddy section of the trail, a White-tailed Kite cruises in and lands at the top of a small tree. Almost immediately a Northern Harrier who owns this weedy field chases the kite away. What a privilege to see my first White-tailed Kite of the year at a place where they normally don’t occur. Thank the Birding Gods again and hit the road.
While planning this trip I used eBird to find locations that I might get Pinyon Jays. There were two sites close together on the route between Prescott and Flagstaff, near Williams. I navigated to the GPS coordinates of one site, Cataract Lake. I was to the east of the lake along a Forest Service Road looking at a closed picnic area. I walked up and down the road for a while listening for Pinyon Jays. An adult Bald Eagle flies over, a bunch of ground-feeding Pygmy Nuthatches (interesting behavior), and no jays. I decide to check the other location, which turns out to be on the other side of the lake in a neighborhood. I find another park that is open and gives me access to the lake. While walking around this park I hear the jays, they don’t sound close and in the direction of the sun. Pinyon Jays usually vocalize when they are on the move. After a few seconds I see silhouettes of the jays flying about three hundred yards away through the pine trees. Had it not been for the vocalizations, the silhouettes would have been unidentified. Not very satisfying views of a new state bird, but the birds were heading to an inaccessible area and I need to get moving.
A Varied Thrush had been found a few minutes off the highway in Flagstaff at a place called Eldon Spring. The bird was last seen a few days before my arrival. Unfortunately, I was not able to find this bird during an hour-long mid-day walk around the area. I knew this was a long shot but it could have been a sweet year bird.
For even a longer shot I stopped at the Cameron Trading Post to look for a Rufous-backed Robin that had been present earlier in the winter. The last report was at least three weeks earlier. I find an American Robin and a Lincoln’s Sparrow but not a Rufous-backed Robin. I plan to stop here again on my southbound journey.
For the rest of day I drove. I made a few brief stops but was racing the sun. I did not want to arrive in Kanab too late. I also began revising my plans for the rest of this trip and my next guiding excursion. I received email from my client that he was coming in a day early to beat foul weather on the east coast and therefore wanted to start a day earlier than planned. That meant I needed to cut this trip short and get home tomorrow evening.
12 February 2014 Wednesday: After a night in Kanab and before sunrise, I am heading south to Fredonia. Before I cross back into Arizona an adult-like Bald Eagle flies over the road and at the border (north of) I see a Rough-legged Hawk perched up waiting for the rising sun.
In Fredonia I drive through the neighborhood streets on the west side of town (this is where the chickadees have been found) and then to Altus Road on the southwest side of town. Altus Road is where a Northern Shrike was report in earlier January and I hoped that the shrike might be perched up hunting for breakfast. With no shrike to entertain me I return to the Fredonia neighborhood, find a place to park my truck near the intersection of West First Avenue and Judd Street. I find access to Kanab Creek and listen for the chickadees there for several minutes. This neighborhood looks and feels like my Mom’s neighborhood in Colorado. And Black-capped Chickadees wander through Mom’s neighborhood in the winter. So I begin walking the streets of Fredonia. At 08:23 I hear chickadees to the east on Brown Street, it sounds like they are rather distant. I start walking in their direction and find two Black-capped Chickadees foraging in some leafless tree along Brown Street in front of a house immediately west of the parking lot for a fire station. Even though the tree is leafless, it is difficult to get good looks at the birds. After about a minute of observation the chickadees fly north. I don’t see where they land and in order for me to head in the same direction I must walk around the block. I do and spend the next hour or so trying to find these birds again. I feel fortunate that I was able to get good looks at the Black-capped Chickadees however I do wish I could have gotten a photograph. Though I had hoped for better looks and some photographs, this is a great state bird (so good I need to write a rare report for it) and a year bird that should count for more than one.
Once I begin feeling like a continued search is futile I begin to mentally prepare myself for the drive home. I make another pass through Altus Road and some of its side streets. Eventually, I begin the long drive home.
I set my sights on a burn area along the highway just west of Jacobs Lake that someone recently had seen a Three-toed Woodpecker. As I am slowing down for the pull off, a small flock of finches fly up from the side of the road. They settle in a nearby pine tree just long enough for me to confirm they are indeed what I thought they were (Cassin’s Finches) and not what I hoped they would be (Pine Grosbeaks). The finches leave and I look into the burned forest. There are signs of woodpeckers on nearly every standing tree. I heard woodpecker drumming that I attribute to my quarry. I walk towards the sounds then hear regular tapping and pursue that. I find the source of the tapping, a Hairy Woodpecker. But I don’t think it is the source of the drumming. I begin walking back in the direction of the drumming previously heard and then hear more tapping. This time, a male American Three-toed Woodpecker is the source of the tapping. The bird is about twenty feet away and working a dead tree about eight feet off the ground. I am ecstatic. The woodpecker is not too concerned with my presence except when the snow crunches under my feet. I get excellent looks and take numerous pictures. It has probably been twenty-five years since I’ve seen a Three-toed Woodpecker. This is a wonderful state bird and an excellent year bird; many thanks to the Birding Gods. Memories of the woodpecker and the chickadee keep me energized during the long and uneventful drive home.
I stop at the Cameron Trading Post once again and see fewer birds than yesterday. A stop at Montezuma Lake off of I-17 fails to produce the Eastern Bluebirds recently reported. I managed once again to negotiate Phoenix traffic during rush hours and get home around 19:30. Miles: 1088, New State Birds: 4 (Tundra Swan, Pinyon Jay, Black-capped Chickadee, AM. Three-toed Woodpecker), New Year Birds: 8, Total 2014 Year: 255.
13 February 2014 Thursday: George had flown in a day earlier than planned to miss a forecasted snow & ice storm. George had a defined list of target birds he wished to see here in Arizona as his ABA life list approaches 700. We had originally planned for three days; the Sinaloa Wren and Ruddy Ground-Doves the first day, Le Conte’s Thrasher and Bell’s Sparrow the second day, Nutting’s Flycatcher the third day, and the Rosy-face Lovebirds whenever. We got to lower Huachuca Canyon a bit after 8am and joined several people already looking for the wren or doing a bird census. About twenty minutes of mostly listening I hear the wren blurt out several ratchet calls and after a few minutes more I find the bird rustling leaves several meters away. Eventually about a dozen people get very good looks at the wren this morning and George came away with a whole bunch of photographs of the bird. Off to Whitewater Draw we go.
The hour drive flew by (pun intended) with good conversation and beautiful scenery. We arrive Whitewater Draw and find a parking spot in front of the pole barn. As I am gearing up a lady tells me there are ground-doves over there (pointing) and asked what kind they are. I check them out thinking I’m going to see the small group of Common Ground-Doves that have been around. No, they are the Ruddy Ground-Doves. This pair of doves hasn’t been reported for over a week and I had been warning George that they might not be around. I don’t even have the scope or my camera out of the truck yet and there they are. The lady and her friends get excited as I explain how rare these birds are. George is excited as he takes pictures of his second lifer of the day. And I am obviously excited. After about twenty minutes, the pair of doves flies off towards the ponds. George and I are thanking the Birding Gods; what could have taken several hours took less than thirty minutes.
I suggest to George that we immediately head to Phoenix, try for the Lovebirds at Encanto Park, and giving enough daylight try for the thrashers at sunset. He’s game and off we go.
We approach Encanto Park just before 3pm. The truck’s navigation set is telling us we have a quarter mile to go. The windows are open, we are passing a golf course, and we hear the lovebirds! I pull into the nearest parking lot (which turns out to be for Encanto Park), we jump out of the truck, and find several Rosy-faced Lovebirds in the palm trees overhead and in an Oleander bush out on the golf course. Again, we get great looks and many photographs. The Birding Gods continue the blessings.
Not wasting any time, we head back to the highway and go west for Buckeye. An hour later we are pulling up to the intersection of Salome Highway and Baseline Road. We first cover the area to the north and east of the intersection. I had seen both a Bell’s Sparrow and a Le Conte’s Thrasher in this area several weeks earlier and this is where other birders have been finding numbers of Bell’s Sparrows. It is late afternoon and not much is moving around. We find a small flock of White-crowned Sparrows and there are several Anna’s Hummingbirds around. Finally we hear a thrasher singing. It is a Benedire’s Thrasher and across Salome Highway to the southwest. Even though it is not the species we are looking for, we head in its direction and get some great looks at a species that is often difficult to see. We continue walking through the salt brush desert to the southwest. About a half-mile from the highway we begin curving our path to head back in the direction of the truck. And there in front of us is a large tail cocked gray-brown bird running between bushes. For the next thirty minutes or so we follow the Le Conte’s Thrasher around. Both of us get some really good pictures of this bird. The Birding Gods continue to smile upon us. George has four lifers for the day, incredible. We continue, focusing our efforts on sparrows. The sunsets with us finding just one Sagebrush Sparrow and I don’t think George got to see it.
We have effectively just completed two planned days of birding (really lifer chasing) in one day. We agree that the Nutting’s Flycatcher is not worth the chase based on recent negative reports from David & Lauren and others. George has a planned trip to California next month where the Bell’s Sparrow is one of the targets. George also knows of several lifers he can get in south Texas and looks into flights to Harlingen. We make plans to stay in Gila Bend overnight, try again for the Bell’s Sparrow in the morning, and I am to drop George off at Sky Harbor Airport at eleven-tomorrow morning.
14 February 2014 Friday: After a good meal, good conversation, and a good night rest we arrive back at the thrasher spot just after sunrise. Again, I have us walking through the salt brush north of Baseline and east of Salome. It took a while but we finally found one sage-type sparrow. After a few minutes of study, I determine this is a Bell’s Sparrow. This bird had thick black malar stripes and indistinct streaks on the back (uniform-looking most of the time). We later find a loose flock of Sagebrush Sparrows and another Bell’s. The Bell’s Sparrow seemed to not flock with the Sagebrush Sparrows and as observed by others seemed to be more skittish. The final tally for George was five lifers in one day plus a few hours of birding in Arizona. I drop him off at the airport and wish him continued success in Texas.
My drive home was almost uneventful. I make a pass through the Santa Cruz Flat hoping to stumble across a Merlin and I drive across and stop at the Ina Road Bridge looking for a Cliff Swallow to fly by. No luck. Fifteen minutes before I get home, I receive a text message from Andrew. There has been a Yellow-crowned Night Heron reported from Patagonia. After some texting and emails once I get home, we learn that the report is two days old, so there’s no rush at this point. This is good since I shouldn’t be driving until after I get some rest. So I take a well-deserved nap.
Oh yea, while driving to the thrasher spot this morning, I saw a flock of Cattle Egret along Highway 85. This is a new species for the year, number 257.