Sunday, September 16, 2018

Three Crazy Trips to Gila County

On my last post, I talked about my Gila County Birding for 2018.  It started off very slow due to me not making many trips into the County until August.  Once I started going back more, things began to pick up.  And things started to get exciting again.  Short-tailed Hawk, Reddish Egret, Orchard Oriole, Semipalmated Sandpiper to name a few.  But then came the next three weeks after my latest post.  And they took place every Wednesday and Thursday, in Gila County.  Read along to see and read about the continuing fun I am having on my quest to see 315 birds or more in Gila County.  This story will feature some fun finds, a depressing mistake, and finding an amazing birding location that hasn't been birded prior to my visits for birding (according to my knowledge).

August 29th and 30th were the dates of my first trip that I took to Gila County.  The 29th, a Wednesday, I headed out to Roosevelt Lake for the day.  My goal was to search for shorebirds, of course, as well as migrants in the Orange Peel section of the northern part of the lake, such as a potential Northern Waterthrush.  The day had a lot of birds to start off with, but I was missing some of my key targets.  Vaux's Swifts weren't anywhere to be seen on this date, and I was constantly looking up in hopes of finding them.  I was also hoping that my Reddish Egret would be a continuing rarity at Bermuda Flat, but it was nowhere to be seen.  Two Barn Owls were flushed from Orange Peel while I was searching for migrants in a dense stand of willow trees.

Returning to Bermuda Flat, I was very happy to run into Dara, who was birding and hanging out with her friend Tru.  The three of us birded together for half the day, and I showed Dara around Bermuda Flat and Schoolhouse Point Recreation Sites.  It was a great time, and Dara became one of not that many birders who has reached 200 species in Gila County while we were birding.  Since then, she has birded Gila more too and continues to increase her explorations, it's freaking awesome.  I wanted her to see the Reddish Egret, but it still remained missing in action.  However, we got lucky and had that Semipalmated Sandpiper pop up right in front of us!  As my photographs were very poor of this bird the previous week, it was great to have it in such range during this week.

A big flock of White-faced Ibis was impressive at Schoolhouse Point!

After Dara and Tru headed home, I birded Roosevelt Lake for the rest of the day.  I settled down for the day at Bermuda Flat, and tried to plan for the next day.  There were many options going through my head.  One that was really on my mind was the San Carlos Indian Reservation where I would bird Talkalai and San Carlos Lakes, and the densely and painfully thick and thorny San Carlos River and it's riparian jungle.  And there was also this attractive looking tank on the San Carlos Reservation that I saw on a map.  It is northwest of town, is a rather big tank, and it is called, "Tufa Stone Tank".  The sight of the tank on the map has intrigued me for quite some time, and as I nodded off, I knew that Tufa Stone Tank had won me over for the next day, and that the curiosity of it was going to kill me.

Early on August 30th, I headed east out to the San Carlos Reservation, bought my permit, and drove to Tufa Stone Tank to start the day off.  I didn't know what to expect.  I didn't know if the tank would have water, or if it would be a dud that only looked good on maps.  But as I pulled up, I knew right away that it is an epic place when it has water.  And it had plenty of water!

I could hear and see that it had plenty of birds too.  The tank was bigger than I thought, and had an assortment of different habitat sequences right around it's immediate limits.  Those habitats were obviously plenty of water to support a variety of waterbirds from waders to divers, stands of willow, grassy areas around the tank, tall weeds and grass, and desert areas full of mesquite, cactus, and creosote.  Due to a busy day ahead of me with many places to visit, I decided to spend two hours in my first visit to Tufa Stone Tank.  I should have spent four hours there.

Tufa Stone Tank has a dirt road that goes over it's dam and runs along the east side of the tank.  I walked the road to get an overlook of the tank before navigating the tank.  When looking for waterbirds, it was a good approach.  I had an assortment of such, including ten species of shorebirds.  In the middle of it all, I heard a big target of mine for Gila, a Northern Waterthrush, calling on the west side of the tank where there was a clump of big willow trees.  I set my scope on the section where the bird was calling from.  Sure enough, I had my target pop up and could clearly see that it was a Northern Waterthrush despite the distance.  I then navigated the tank, saw many many many many many many many many many more birds, and then got to the Waterthrush spot.  Two Great Horned Owls flushed from the willows.  Migrants, residents, and birds somewhere in between were all everywhere.  After a short wait, the Waterthrush made it's appearance, and it was even joined by a second Northern Waterthrush!  Both birds were cooperative for photographs.

I don't know I managed to only spend two hours at Tufa Stone Tank on my first visit.  It needed to be birded twice that much.  In only two hours, I had 72 species of birds.  I had a lot of ground to cover, but still.....

I knew that I had found a spot that could attract many birds and as long as it would keep it's water, would have loads of potential...

The remainder of my day was spent covering Talkalai Lake, the San Carlos River for a short time due to the heat, a few more tanks on the Res, looking over San Carlos Lake briefly, and more and more checks of Roosevelt Lake.  I had my third Northern Waterthrush of the day calling from the San Carlos River.  This Bald Eagle's choice of perches at Talkalai Lake was epic.

Talkalai Lake is beautiful, in both Gila and Graham Counties (I wish it was all Gila), and is a great spot to get Least Bittern in Gila County (Graham too).  It may be the only spot to get Least Bittern in Gila County.  I have more exploring to do!  After Tufa Stone Tank's intro into my birding, I didn't have much else that was notable for me between other San Carlos spots and more of Roosevelt Lake to conclude the day.

After birding Tufa Stone Tank and getting home later in the day, I couldn't wait to drop the news to the birding community about how awesome the place was and how much potential it could hold.  And then there was a big part of me that wanted to be a hog and keep it a secret.  Just kidding.  I told the community about the place, and many have seemed interested.

Tufa Stone Tank consumed my birding thoughts for the following days.  I knew where I was going on my next two days off, and where my first stop was going to be.  September 5th and 6th were the two days, and once again, were a Wednesday and Thursday.  I got to Tufa a little later than I wanted to, about 6:40 A.M. on the 5th.  It was great to see Janine McCabe out there, a second birder other than me to now be exploring the tank.  After talking for a few minutes, Janine and I would split up and would alert each other to notable birds in the area.  And there were some very notable birds.  Two of my main targets for this trip were Vaux's Swift and Greater White-fronted Goose, both of which were starting to migrate through Arizona in numbers.  The magic of Tufa struck immediately again this time.  As I scanned a flock of swallows feeding over the water of the tank, there was a Vaux's Swift feeding with them!  After a minute of feeding, the Swift lifted up and left the area.  That was the only swift I saw that day, and it was that quick.

As I scanned the water and water edges with my scope, I caught movement along some tall grass.  Right away the bird looked awesome and it was.  Minutes after getting Vaux's Swift, there was that other target, a Greater White-fronted Goose!  The goose blended into it's surroundings well, and Janine was able to get on it from her viewpoint too.

The Greater White-fronted Goose was my 290th species for Gila County, setting up a fun ride with 10 more to go to 300 and 25 to go from my minimum goal of 315 life birds for the county.  Pictured here is seeing it lift up and leave the tank after Janine and I enjoyed it throughout the morning.

One of my favorite sections of Tufa Stone Tank is the north section.  I have to go to the north section in order to walk to the west side of the tank where the line of willows are and a majority of the migrant passerines.  To get to the west side more quickly, I have to walk through some very tall and wet grass, some of which is knee high, and some of which is head high.  The grass doesn't bother me, it has loads of potential itself for interesting birds, such as rare sparrows, Bobolink, Painted Bunting, Sedge Wren, and one that I was really hoping for, a Dickcissel.  As I was walking through the grass, one, and eventually, two, Dickcissels popped up right in front of me.  I was pumped up, as this was the third Gila County lifer I had already gotten in less than an hour at the tank.  Good grief!

Throughout the morning, Janine and I had an incredible variety of birds.  In fact, we had about 90 species combined between the two of us, 70+ apiece.  I realized that with good conditions when this tank has water, it is the real freaking deal!

At one point in the morning when the activity was dying down and when I was within the last hour of the exploration of the tank, I had an embarrassing but yet awesome thing happen.  I'll just say it.  A Grasshopper Sparrow popped up and perched out in the open.  But at first, and for a few days, I called it a Cassin's Sparrow.  I don't know why I made this mistake, but I did.  When reviewing pictures at home, it boldly clicked, "Tommy, Cassin's Sparrow doesn't have a striking BOLD eyering and a short tail".  I was humbled, embarrassed, and freaking pumped at the same time.  Caleb and I had a good laugh about it as I showed the photograph to him.  He pointed out that Grasshopper Sparrow is an eBird first for Gila and when I looked over Gila County stuff later that Kurt Radamaker compiled, Grasshopper Sparrow wasn't on that list either.  I've seen good Grasshopper Sparrow habitat in places in the county, so there is no doubt this species is found in places during the winter months.  Even though I didn't know it live, I had 4 Gila lifers at Tufa.  What an epic spot...

My next stop was a rather short stop at San Carlos Lake to scan the northern Gila County side for any notable birds.  The lake really had low levels, and about 20 percent of it had water.  It was crazy to see it as low as it was.  From a birding standpoint, it made birds easier to find.  I ran into Janine at San Carlos Lake too, and we enjoyed a productive viewpoint of the lake for awhile.  A flock of Greater White-fronted Geese, 3 Black Terns, and two Long-billed Curlews were the main highlights for me in the time that I spent there.  Here is a snapshot of the Goose flock.

After finishing up birding on the San Carlos Reservation, I had some time left in the day to quickly bird my two favorite Roosevelt Lake spots to close the day out:  Schoolhouse Point and Bermuda Flat.  When I got to Schoolhouse I found not only birds, but the awesome Dara there too.  Dara was finishing up another day of Gila County birding after hitting up several locations earlier in the day.  We birded for an hour before Dara had to go home, and it was a great time.  Dara also had good news, that the Reddish Egret was back at Bermuda Flat!  After missing in action for Dara and me last week, it was great that the bird showed up for her.  As I closed my day out at Bermuda Flat, there was the Reddish Egret, who stayed put for me too.

I camped out at Bermuda that night.  I camp out at Bermuda every Wednesday night these days it seems.  At one point in the night, I heard Coyotes yipping and howling close by as they surrounded my truck.  I left the tailgate down, and a scary thought crossed my mind that, "what if the Coyotes saw that and decided to leap up into the truck bed with me".  Nuh uh.  I put that thing right back up.  When I turned my flashlight on, I heard the pack run away.  During the night, I also heard Barn, Western Screech, and Great Horned Owls sounding off.

September 6th was a morning of birding riparian areas along Tonto Creek via the town of Tonto Basin, and of course, Roosevelt Lake.  The riparian area I usually choose to bird is the extensive corridor and stretch of Tonto Creek that is accessed via Bar X Crossing Road.  While it crossed my mind to go that route, I decided to go with a road that is not far south of Bar X, which is called A-Cross Road.  A-Cross has good riparian habitat, but it isn't nearly as thick and extensive as Bar X.  While Bar X has impressive jungles of willow and cottonwood, my mindset was that maybe birds at A-Cross would be easier to find and would concentrate in smaller areas.  The spot did not disappoint me!  I had over 50 species at the spot, and that included a Gila County life bird, a Lark Bunting.  Lark Bunting is one I've been hoping for for some time, and it felt great to cross paths with this one.

Aside from the Lark Bunting, I heard and successfully recorded a Dickcissel flying overhead.  And I found a Northern Waterthrush.  What was awesome is that I've birded Bar X a countless amount of times without any notable warblers, and here on my first visit to the A-Cross section, boom!

I got to Roosevelt Lake and spent the rest of my trip in it's vicinity.  At Bermuda Flat, I had some really cool sightings.  Seeing two Osprey's lined up close to the shore was one of them.  The scene needed some photographs.

As I looked to the mudflats at Bermuda, there was a wader scene.  Can you identify the 5 species of waders that are present?

One of the five was the continuing Reddish Egret.  For the first time, I managed to get nice and close to this rarity for some time where I snapped photos and video.  While the other herons and egrets took off when I came, the Reddish Egret stayed put.

The remainder of the day saw 16 Greater White-fronted Geese and as many as 6 Black Terns at Schoolhouse Point.  I also enjoyed seeing three Harris's Hawks (rare and local in Gila County) and a look at the ancient cliff dwellings within the Tonto National Monument.

As my trip concluded, I was grateful for the 5 Gila birds that I got, and for the people and things who I ran into.

For September 12th and 13th, I was back at it again.  Relatively the same plan.  An adjustment that I made was to cut Roosevelt Lake scanning down to one day rather than two.  Hopefully that will be for the best, I'm obsessed with Roosevelt Lake.

To start off Wednesday the 12th, I was quickly back to my luck spot, Tufa Stone Tank.  For the third week in a row, Tufa was extremely productive.  When I got there, I immediate caught sight of a tern flying over the tank.  As I got better looks throughout the morning, it was starting to look like a Common Tern to me.  Common Tern was another bird I was hoping for for Gila County this year as a county bird.  This bird was a juvenile, and as I don't have much experience for the species, my buddy Caleb does.  Caleb's expertise chimed in and said it looked good for Common.  It was great to get that confirmation in the field, thanks Caleb!  The Common Tern was present for about an hour and would commonly fly over the tank, and perch on a tree in the water when it did feed.

After the Tern, it was time to go fourth into some major hardcore Tufa birding.  Before that happened, I was joined at the tank by these feral horses.  They have been there every visit so far.

The tank had 76 species during the morning.  Nearly four hours of birding.  A Red-necked Phalarope was a great addition to the tank.

One of my mistakes for the previous week was calling a Grasshopper Sparrow a Cassin's Sparrow.  Something hilarious happened this time.  As I got to the spot where the Grasshopper Sparrow was, it didn't take me long to find the continuing bird.

Looking 20-30 feet away was then an actual Cassin's Sparrow, right in the vicinity of the Grasshopper Sparrow.  Gosh...

Two Great Horned Owls seem to like the same perch every week at the tank.  And an Osprey, the first for the tank, was awesome.

Also in the land of sparrows was a spizella that struck me as a Clay-colored Sparrow in the field.  I was a little far away for good binocular looks, which resulted in me snapping photographs, as my camera does much better than my binoculars.  This one would have to wait till I got home.  While reviewing photographs at home, it looked like a Clay-colored Sparrow to me.  This species and bright Brewer's Sparrows can look awful similar, and recently, it's been found out that a lot of bright Brewer's Sparrows get mis-identified as Clay-coloreds.  Caleb is very knowledgeable on this subject, and when I asked his opinion on my bird, he thought Clay-colored.  This became Gila County bird 295 for me, and three good sparrows at Tufa Stone Tank in a short amount of time.

The rest of the day was spent at Talkalai and San Carlos Lakes, mainly San Carlos Lake.  I didn't intend to spend a lot of time at San Carlos, and wanted to stay until about 3 P.M.  That changed when I saw the first Jaeger of my life out on the lake, and on the north Gila County side.  Jaegers are rare in Arizona, and are very rare outside of the western side of the state, where they are annual at the Lower Colorado River area, such as Lake Havasu.  I was shocked at the sight of the bird, and my excitement really got the best of me.  The Jaeger was all dark, had a bi-colored bill with a black tip at the end of it, and when it lifted up it's wing, it revealed noticeable white primary shafts.  It was either a Parasitic or Pomarine Jaeger, and record wise, it was probably a Parasitic.  I made a horrible decision and decided to try and get closer before I got to watch the bird in flight.  The bird was under a set of ramadas that I thought were the ramadas by the boat launch.  It turned out the ramadas were a mile or so east of the boat launch ramadas, hence, I went to the wrong spot.  Watching the Jaeger where I originally found it at was the best option.  This resulted in me losing the bird completely and failing to relocate it after an additional three hours of searching.  As I write about it now, I'm still bummed out about it.  There is even a reliable Parasitic Jaeger right now at Lake Havasu that many birders are seeing.  Gosh.  I have to leave my bird as a "spuh".

In the final hour of daylight, the sun was quite bad.  Some of the roads around San Carlos Lake are in very bad shape.  There aren't a lot of folks out there right now due to low lake levels.  While on a road just north of the main road to access the lake, which is Coolidge Dam Road, I lost sight of what I was doing for a split second, and slanted off the road.  I was in loose, deep soil, and had no chance of getting out.  I tried digging into the deep sand, putting strong obstacles under my tires for thirty minutes, and nothing worked.  Plans were already being made in my head to possibly spend the night out there if I couldn't get a hold of a towing company.  Bad words were screamed.  Luckily, I was in a spot with good cell phone signal and was able to call my Dad and ask him if he could look up numbers for towing companies.  Describing to my Dad exactly where I was was challenging.  But then God blessed me with a miracle.  While I didn't think anyone would come down that road at that time of day, someone did.  A couple named Hardy and Mary were in a big truck, and were more than glad to help me.  Hardy got his rope and hitch out and figured out a plan.  It didn't take him long to simply pull my truck up and back onto level ground.  My thankfulness for those two people on the Reservation couldn't be put into words.  They saved me from a lot and their kindness was epic.  My trip was able to keep going because of them and who knows how much money they saved me from spending.  I was able to go to Roosevelt Lake after dark and camp at guess where?  Bermuda Flat.

On September 13th, I woke up and decided to go to bird Tonto Creek again to start the day, but this time I birded the creek further north and adjacent to the town of Gisela.  I love this area and section of Tonto Creek.  The place was very birdy, and I had over 60 species of birds in my time spent.  Bright and early there were many Violet-green Swallows migrating overhead, as well as a push of 8 Vaux's Swifts, a bird I always want to see.

Things took an awesome turn while I was birding a patch of willows and cottonwoods and a new Gila lifer popped into view, this Black-and-White Warbler.

Black-and-white Warbler was one I thought I would get last year, along with others, but I didn't.  And one I thought I'd get before this date.  Sometimes a back log of expectancy goes a long way.  A half mile later, I found another Black-and-white Warbler!

The time at Gisela was truly a good one, it always is.  I need to visit this spot more than I do.  I added another good bird before my 5 + hours were up, a Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet that was pretty far north for it's range.  Freaking awesome.

To close out this trip, I stopped at Roosevelt Lake once again.  Aside from the Reddish Egret and 2 Pectoral Sandpipers, there wasn't much else notable.  Bermuda Flat even has this perfect amount of shorebird habitat, but no shorebirds on the habitat.  Hopefully that will change.

I'm obsessed with Gila County birding.  I love the county, and what I enjoy most is learning and trying to figure out the birds of a county outside of Maricopa County.  It's enjoying birding and reliving things that I love about it all over again.  I have much more to learn and discover about Gila County, and it's something I plan to carry out.

My Gila list is now at 296 species.  Since August 8th, I've gotten 19 new Gila County life birds:  Wilson's Phalarope, Semipalmated Plover, Short-tailed Hawk (thanks Jeff, Dara, and Laurie), Montezuma Quail (thanks Ryan), Red-necked Phalarope, Black Tern, Long-billed Curlew, Orchard Oriole, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Reddish Egret, Northern Waterthrush, Greater White-fronted Goose, Vaux's Swift, Dickcissel, Grasshopper Sparrow, Lark Bunting, Common Tern, Clay-colored Sparrow, and Black-and-white Warbler.  I don't expect to keep getting birds to cooperate like this, although, it would be awesome!

I've gone camping for 5 consecutive weeks now.  4 of those campouts have been at Roosevelt Lake, the other at Valentine Ridge below the Mogollon Rim.  How long can my streak keep going?

I want to thank my buddy and one of my best friends, Caleb Strand.  Caleb is an incredible birder and is a walking encyclopedia of knowledge.  He's helped me a lot during this journey of mine and has given me great points on many advanced bird identifications.

My truck is another person to thank.  And yes, it is a person.  It has over 270K on it and keeps going like a pro.  A lot of pictures show Toyota Tocoma in the background, this truck is fantastic.  Can we make it 540K in another 9 years???

My favorite band, Amaranthe, is to thank too.  They keep me awake on the road.  And so does Dr. Pepper.  Too bad I can't somehow have Amaranthe holding up Dr. Pepper bottles in the photograph..

What's next?  Hopefully more and more of birding in Gila County to find more birds and learn more about the birds in the county.  In the coming weeks, I hope to keep birding a lot in these mentioned lowlands, as well as some in the high country to try for some residents who have scarce ranges.  Thanks for reading, stay tuned for more.