Thursday, June 5, 2014

AZ Big Year – Week Twenty White Mountains Expedition

White Mountains Expedition
13 May 2014 Tuesday:  Left Green Valley early with my first destination being Oak Flats Campground near Superior and my target was Gray Vireo.  I had never visited this site and am very thankful that Diane T. posted her observations from the previous day.  I found the Gray Vireo across Magma Mine Road from small pond just as Diane described.  The campground itself appeared unimpressive, it was very windy,  and I had a goal of making it to Pinetop by about noon – so I didn’t linger very long once I saw & photographed the vireo.
Gray Vireo - near Oak Flats CG, Pinal County, AZ
I arrived at George & Ellen’s Pinetop home just after noon, shared lunch with them, and then George & I headed over to Green’s Peak.  Green’s Peak is a volcanic cinder cone rising 1000 feet above the surrounding terrain to an elevation of 10133 ft.  The south slope is grassy while the northern facing slopes are covered with pines, spruce, & aspen.  To the Arizona birding community, Green’s Peak is famed for Dusky Grouse.  Upon arriving at the top, George & I setoff down the 45-degree slope of the power line cut. We make it about a third of the way down the mountain before turning back.  When we get within about 50 yards of the top, I hear a male grouse “booming” to the west.  It must have been close since their booming call is reportedly only audible at 50 yards.  To the west of my position is a tangle of fallen timber on a very steep slope. I decide to continue to the top of the mountain with George and hope I can look down upon the grouse.  From the top a thicket of thorny bushes conceals the grouse’s location.  I decide this bird has won round one.
My thoughts drift to the nightjar and telling folks they don’t have to see it to count it.  So the Dusky Grouse is unsatisfyingly the latest addition to my Arizona state list as well as my year list.  There are other birds to be found on this peak so George & I walk down the ski trail northwest of the summit.  While George walks down the trail I walk through the forest 50 yards off the trail.  I hear two hen grouse calling and again there is too much forest debris on too steep of a slope to approach.  I catchup with George and enjoy a few of the high elevation birds of the area: Downy Woodpecker, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Mountain Chickadees.  Also enjoyed, but not quite as much were two vocalizing flyover Clark’s Nutcrackers.  They were barely seen yet visually & vocally identifiable so they count for the year list.

14 May 2014 Wednesday: I previously requested that George, Ellen, Sandi, and myself take a hike at Sheep Crossing.  Three of my target species had in previous years been found along the Baldy Trail; American Dipper, Gray Jay, and Clark’s Nutcracker.   I had seen the Nutcracker yesterday so I was am to focus on the Dipper & the Jay.  It didn’t take much focus.  Upon arriving at the trailhead parking area, I see a lite gray bird feeding on something down along the edge of the West Fork of the Little Colorado River.  It’s a Gray Jay! Then there’s another.  The two Gray Jays are feeding on a dead trout.  The Gray Jay pair appeared to eat or swallow pieces of the fish then fly off into the forest and return about a minute later.  I guess that they are feeding babies.  I take numerous photos of my latest Year Bird and State Bird.
Still reeling with excitement over the Gray Jays, Sandi leads George, Ellen, and myself down the river to the highway bridge.  Before we get too close to the bridge, I hear a bird singing that I had some vague & distant familiarity.  It was the American Dipper.  My only previous Dipper in Arizona was a couple of years ago at Paradise Creek.  So this was again something special and the songster posed for pictures! Within twenty minutes my two targets were secured, now we can go have a nice hike.
We begin our walk up the edge of the river paralleling Forest Trail #94.  We find a nesting pair of Dippers under the old bridge and at least two further up stream (at least 5 for the day).   Every quarter mile or so, we find pairs of Gray Jays foraging in the meadows along the river.  Being rather oblivious to our presence, they allow for many photo opportunities. We enjoyed many other species of birds, a few flowers, wonderful scenery, gorgeous weather, and one of the first Beaver dams I’ve seen in Arizona.
15 May 2014 Thursday: I wake up early and try to leave George & Ellen’s Pinetop home without disturbing anyone.  George & Ellen are heading to Green Valley for a few days and do not have the time to join me for another expedition up Green’s Peak.  I wish to get back on Green’s Peak as close to sunrise as I can.  It is wonderfully cold, 24 degrees, as I pass through McNary and 27 at the base of Green’s Peak.  The sun is up and it’s a beautiful morning.  My plan is to park the truck a hundred yards short of the top so as to not disturb any grouse that may be out in the open displaying.  About 50 yards before my planned stopping point I spy the distinct shape of a grouse standing in a patch of grass a few feet off the road.  I stop, I look, I photograph, - I am in awe!  I consider backing down the mountain so to not disturb him.  However he flies up to a nearby tree fifty feet off the road.  I pass by and park near the summit.  I briefly walk the forest edge hoping to find another.  I eventually walk down the road and find the grouse perched in another tree.  He is doing his display thirty feet up a spruce tree.  I was fortunate to witness the display but not quick enough to take any pictures while he was performing.  Fearing that I may have caused enough disturbances, I retreated back to my truck and descend Green’s Peak, leaving the mountain for the Dusky Grouse.
During the long drive home I contemplate the five new year birds, two of which were state birds, and wonder how I am going to get the next forty-five birds to reach 400.  However I really should be planning the next three weeks of guiding.
16 May 2014 Friday: I am back to guiding. Today I took Mike M. to see Black-capped Gnatcatchers in Montosa Canyon.  This search could go one of two ways.  The family group could be difficult to find since the young have fledged (on 5/10 according to Gavin) due to their mobility.  Or maybe it could be easy since there ought to be much begging noise as the adults bring food to the youngsters.   The latter became true, I found the gnatcatcher family about fifteen minutes after arriving.  We had close and lengthy views of the male, female, and three fledglings.  Mike was pleased with a new lifer and I was pleased with numerous good pictures of the various individuals.  We spent about an hour with the Black-capped Gnatcatcher family without looking at much of anything else.
On a long shot we next headed to Tubac to see if we could find the long missing Sinaloa Wren.  The wren seems to have been replaced with a Yellow-breasted Chat as I had previously noted about a month earlier.  We did find several new arrivals for the spring, a male Blue Grosbeak and two Northern Waterthrushes. The grosbeak is a summer breeding species while the waterthrushes are migrants.  While I am pleased to get both species for the year list, the waterthrushes were special since they could have been easily missed since most of my birding (guiding) during their migration period is not in the proper habitat.
17 May 2014 Saturday: I met Mort & Andy, both from Phoenix, at Madera Kubo for a half-day of guiding in Madera Canyon.  We spend the first few minutes birding the feeders and the area around Madera Kubo.  A Greater Pewee and a Grace’s Warbler are singing, both of these species are typically found higher in the canyon so to hear them here is exciting.  A pair of Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers appears to be taking up summer residence in the sycamores over the cabins.  We head down to the Proctor Loop Trail some of the lower canyon specialties.  We are barely out of the truck when we find a singing Botteri’s Sparrow and a family of Black-throated Sparrows. We ended up this thirty-seven species at this location.  A short hike up the Carrie Nation Trail produced many of the expected species for the season except the Elegant Trogon.  The trogons have apparently taken up residence about 2 miles from the trailhead, much higher than they have in previous years.  The excitement for me was a second year Broad-winged Hawk soaring over upper Madera Canyon.  At the time of observation, I was not sure of its identity but I took enough poor pictures to later confirm my second Broad-winged Hawk for the year and a very rare bird for Madera Canyon.  Andy got 30 lifers this morning!
On a non-birding note, a Desert Tortoise spent the evening at my front door while a Kingsnake slithered across the backyard. 
18 May 2014 Sunday: Today was the first of two days with Gray & Gloria.  Gray had a list of difficult target birds he wished to see.  We started in lower Huachuca Canyon looking and listening for the Sinaloa Wren.  While we heard the wren give its famed ratchet call a few times, we were not able to lay eyes upon it.  We did rack up quiet a few migrants though.  Our next stop was Hunter Canyon to try for the Rufous-capped Warblers.  While I believe I heard the warblers, I was not able to get Gray or Gloria on to the sounds.  We did here Northern Pygmy-Owl and Mexican Whip-poor-will daytime calling – they made the hike up this rough trail worth it.
19 May 2014 Monday: For our second day together, I took Gray & Gloria down to California Gulch.  Our luck today was much better than yesterday.  I counted eleven Five-striped Sparrows, several of which were seen and one was seen very well.  We also had a family of Black-capped Gnatcatchers near the first crossing, several Black-tailed Gnatcatchers for comparison, calling Pacific-slope Flycatchers, and my first fo the year Varied Bunting.  Wishing for better looks at Black-capped Gnatcatchers we stopped at Montosa Canyon on our way back to Green Valley.  It was already mid-day by the time we arrived and hot.  Now more than a week since they’ve fledged, the Black-capped Gnatcatcher family was difficult to find.  While we were checking out areas closer to the nest site Gavin, leading some other folks, heard them calling from the hillside south of the culvert.  This is about a quarter of a mile from the nest.  Even while we heard them frequently, getting good looks still proved difficult but doable. 
That evening, alone, I visited Faber Canyon with hopes of finding Buff-collared Nightjar where I had a pair last year.  While I found no nightjars, it is a wonderful place to visit at night and somewhat scary when alone.

20 May 2014 Tuesday:  I was out with Robert and Marcella, from the Netherlands this day.  With the exception of a stop near the Continental School to watch a Snowy Egret fly over, we spent the day birding in Madera Canyon.  Though it was somewhat breezy and there was a lull in migration, nearly every bird we saw was exciting.  In particular the birds of color were most outstanding; tanagers, orioles, grosbeaks, redstarts, and of course the hummingbirds.

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