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Arizona: 4 Days in Birding Paradise, Part 1

posted by Kenny Frisch at
on Thursday, February 6, 2014 

This January I made my now annual trip down to Arizona for birding and ultimate frisbee.  The first year I birded for one day around the Phoenix area: Boyce Thompson Arboretum, Gilbert Water Ranch and the Baseline-Salome Thrasher spot.  Last year I down to southeastern Arizona and did Florida and Madera Canyons one day and Patagonia Lake State Park, Patagonia area and the San Rafael Grasslands the next. I also managed some bonus birding on Sunday when the ultimate tournament got cancelled due to rain.  I wrote about it here: http://utahbirders.blogspot.com/2013/02/the-dream-of-lifetime-birding-in.html

This year I was planning on birding on Thursday and Friday but when I found out that my team wasn't playing in the tournament this year, I was sad for a bit until I realized that I would now have four days to bird all around Arizona.  I thought of all the new options I had with two extra days.  I could go to Lake Havasu for some rarities or head north to try for a Rufous-backed Robin or even just spend the extra few days in the southeast.  There certainly are enough places to bird for a few extra days.

Ultimately I decided to spend the first day up around Lake Havasu and pick up a few Tucson rarities and then spend the next 3 days enjoying my time in Southeastern Arizona.  Only the second day would have me birding locations I have visited before.  The rest of the time I would be birding in all new locations.

Wednesday night the 22nd I flew down to Phoenix, grabbed my rental car and headed west towards Lake Havasu.  3 hours later I was pulling in to Bill Williams NWR and hiding my car around a bend from the road.  I reclined my seat and went to sleep.  When I woke up it would be my birthday.

I became fully awake as soon as I realized that the sun was coming up.  I was very excited for my birding trip and for the potentially fast start I could get off to on my birthday.  Throwing my contacts in, I drove back to the west to a pull off on the highway.  I was looking for a large white spot on an island on the south shore of Lake Havasu.  This is where a Blue-footed Booby had been hanging out and causing the white guano spot to keep getting larger.  I quickly found the white spot which stuck out on the red rock island.  Tossing my scope on the spot I found my first target species of the day, my lifer Blue-footed Booby!

This was my view when I woke up on my birthday

 Can you see the booby in the white spot

 My lifer Blue-footed Booby

A great view of the south end of Lake Havasu

I drove back to Planet Ranch Road in Bill Williams National Wildlife Refuge and headed to mile marker 2 for my next staked out species, a Nutting's Flycatcher, a Mexican species that has only recently started being reported in the US.  While waiting for the temperature to warm up and the bird to emerge, I spied a large mammal down the road and took a picture with my camera to zoom in on it and realized that it was a Bobcat!  It was my first time seeing any species of wild cat and I went to get my scope to get better looks but unfortunately it had hid in the few seconds it took to grab my scope.

My first ever Bobcat

After a few more minutes I heard a loud wheep- the Nutting's was around.  I soon spotted the flycatcher sitting in a shrub and it flew up to grab a large green praying mantis to eat.  Looks like this bird was eating well.  I watched the flycatcher feed and forage for a while before heading back to my car.  

My lifer Nutting's Flycatcher and my 2nd code 5 rarity ever (Red-footed Falcon was the other)

 The red edges to the primaries and the yellowish edges to the secondaries are a cool field mark

An odd sparrow caught my eye and a closer look showed it to be a Golden-crowned Sparrow.  I didn't expect to find one on the trip so it was nice to find a non-targeted rarity.

 A Golden-crowned Sparrow in Bill Williams NWR

It was fun to find this rare-in-Arizona sparrow

There were many other awesome species to see in this area where the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts meet and the Bill Williams River flows into Lake Havasu creating a large and diverse riparian zone.  Some of the desert species I found here included Gila and Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Rock, Canyon, Bewick's and Cactus Wren, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher and Crissal Thrasher.

 Riparian Zone in Bill Williams NWR

Harsh conditions away from the river

 Bill Williams River delta- you can almost hear the rails calling

I left the refuge via the rough dirt road and headed to Lake Havasu City and my next staked out bird, a Brown Booby.  This booby proved to be elusive and I didn't see it despite looking for over an hour making it the second Brown Booby I missed in the last few month since I missed another back in New York  I did have some loons and Bufflehead plus a Belted Kingfisher hung out on top of a lakeside building but the best bird there was a flyby Peregrine Falcon that scared the local waterbirds.  While I was a little disappointed by missed the Brown Booby, I was very happy about the Blue-footed Booby, Nutting's Flycatcher and Bobcat I found and I headed back towards Phoenix.  I enjoyed the many awesome desert scenes on my ride back especially of a pig head shaped mountain I saw.

 Pig Head Mountain?

My next stop was the Baseline-Salome Thrasher spot west of Phoenix.  One can see up to 5 different thrasher species here and many other Sonoran Desert species.  Recently this place has be found to contain some Bell's Sparrows which along with Sagebrush Sparrow make up the former Sage Sparrow.  Sage Sparrows in Utah will all be Sagebrush where as Bell's are mostly found in California, but it wouldn't surprise me if one were to show up in winter Sagebrush Sparrow flocks in Washington County.  A few weeks before me, Jeff Bilsky had birded this area and had incredible views of both Leconte's and Bendire's Thrashers and I was hoping for similar luck.

The first bird sighting I had in the area was of a pair of nesting Verdin.  I got to watch the male bring some sticks to the nest and jump inside to improve the quality of the nest building it from inside out.

A pair of Verdin with their nest

A male Verdin brings a new edition to his house

Walking threw the shrubs I looked for thrashers but couldn't find any that day.  I saw a pair of Loggerhead Shrikes and made my way towards some chip notes I was hearing in nearby sagebrush.  I ran into a large flock of at least a dozen Sagebrush Sparrows.   It was hard to get good views of the sparrows with them running away from me and taking cover as much as possible but as I started to study them one stuck out as being darker overall.  As I got more discerning looks at this sparrow I saw how the upperparts especially the head were darker and less patterned.  The malar stripe was thick and dark and as a clincher the tail had no white on it.  I was looking at my lifer Bell's Sparrow/  I wasn't able to get any pictures of it since I was too busy studying it in the field but I will have the images of it burned into my brain.

A paler Sagebrush Sparrow like we would see in Utah

A darker Sagebrush Sparrow

There weren't too many other birds around given it was mid-day but I had some nice looks at a female Anna's Hummingbird and a got some good looks at non-bird things like a side-blotched lizard and a barrel cactus.

 Female Anna's Hummingbird

 Barrel Cactus

Barrel cactus fruit

 Side-blotched Lizard

The final birding spots of my birthday were a few random locales around Tucson where I would try for a few lifers.  My first stop was Evergreen Cemetery, where a Greater Pewee was overwintering.  I pulled into a parking lot in the cemetery where the pewee had been staked out but it wasn't there,  I feared I had come too late as the sun was starting to set and decided to drive a loop around the grounds.  I enjoyed that the most common species in the park was Vermilion Flycatcher and several pairs were found my short drive.  

 Even in bad light, Vermilion Flycatchers are stunning

Looking classy while looking for bugs

Other birds with red in their plumage like Red-shafted Flicker abounded as well.  Just as my loop was about to conclude I found a bare top of a tree I hadn't looked at yet and sitting on top was my prize- the Greater Pewee.  I got to watch the pewee actively flycatch and even passively flycatch as one stupid bug started flying around the pewee until it snapped forward and caught it.  I busted out my scope for even better looks at this out of season rarity.

 Dinner time for this Greater Pewee

Greater Pewees also love bare branches at the tops of trees

With the sun fading fast, I made a quick try for Bronzed Cowbirds at Lakeside Park, but ended missed the birds as the lack of light hurt my chances but I got to see another Vermilion Flycatcher which is always nice.

I headed into Tucson and hit up one of my favorite brewpubs in town for a tasty birthday dinner to celebrate my 4 life species and one lifer mammal I saw today and took in a Arizona basketball victory over Colorado that had the bar buzzing.  After dinner was over I headed south to Florida Canyon where I would sleep for the night in my car to wake up first thing in the morning to get birding.  I had no time to waste down in Arizona.

Coming next: Part 2 featuring Florida and Madera Canyons, Patagonia Lake State Park and the San Rafael Grasslands.  Fewer lifers but more amazing birding than day 1.

Here is a link to my day 1 Flickr set: http://www.flickr.com/photos/29681631@N02/sets/72157640295121465/

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Blogger Kendall Watkins said...

Nice write-up Kenny! Great shots of the Nutting's!

February 6, 2014 at 9:31 PM  

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