As I wrote in my last post for In The Gila, most of my summer was consumed by birding in high elevation forests and canyons in the Mogollon Rim and Sierra Ancha Mountains areas. I went to San Carlos Lake with Caleb a few times. As the early fall rolled in, I found a fun migrant in a Gray Catbird along the East Verde River (see last post), and Gila lifers that I got at San Carlos Lake that I wasn't able to photograph were Cave Swallow, Laughing Gull, and Lesser Yellowlegs. All three of these San Carlos birds were seen with Caleb, and the Lesser Yellowlegs was my 315th bird for Gila County (It was a bit overdue).
I began my fall searching for warblers and other songbirds in late August. Riparian habitats right in Payson were a starting point, and it was still hot enough to retreat to higher coniferous forests later in the day. While one might look upwards for most warblers, I caught sight of a rare Northern Waterthrush as well as a cooperative MacGillivray's Warbler at American Gulch in Payson. Both of these warblers stay low to the ground on most occasions.
An exploration of the San Carlos River with Caleb also produced another Northern Waterthrush.
Once September hit, I wasn't able to go birding until September 16th in Gila County. That California trip took place and took four days which would equal my days off of work for two weeks. When I did get back into things, I searched this awesome riparian area within Rye Creek, which is just north of Jake's Corner. Rye Creek has thick cottonwood and willow habitat nestled in a valley. Something that I really like about it is that most of the habitat is right along the creek and it doesn't take very long to cover the area. The spot is lush and I can see it producing some great birds in the future. I birded Rye Creek some during the summer, and my first fall visit gave me a variety of over fifty different bird species. Migrants were abundant, and the rarest bird that I was able to find was a Black-and-White Warbler.
|Plumbeous Vireo at Rye Creek|
Tonto Creek via the towns of Tonto Basin and Punkin Center is a great place to bird. On September 21st, I birded the creek via A Cross Road. It was incredibly birdy, and I had 64 species in just over 4 hours. I spent a lot of time looking up for warblers and it resulted in the classic sore "Warbler Neck". A Cross Road at Tonto Creek is a spot I haven't started my day at very often, but this time proved to show how productive it can be. Here is a link to my eBird checklist:
Mary McSparen found the astounding Long-tailed Jaeger at Lake Pleasant also in late September. It took up the first of my two days off to begin October, and I ended up with great looks at the Jaeger, which is still my latest life bird to date. After being content with the Jaeger on October 2nd, that same day resulted in Keith Kamper and Doug Jenness finding four rare Roseate Spoonbills at San Carlos Lake. Keith and Doug were scanning from the south side of San Carlos Lake, which is in Pinal County. Even though they were in Pinal County, I knew it wouldn't take much for the Roseate Spoonbills to fly north into Gila County. Doug and Keith also reported low water levels that would result in the lake being void of water throughout most of the eastern half of the lake. This aspect makes the birding and bird-finding a bit easier. On October 3rd, I left early and headed straight for San Carlos Lake. I headed for the eastern side of where the water was on the lake, in the spot where Keith and Doug told me to look for the Roseate Spoonbills. Once I started searching, it didn't take me long to find my target birds. And luckily, they eventually took flight and flew into Gila County and became my 316th county bird!
During mid-October, I took camping trips to Gila County, where I would camp out at Three Bar Road on two Wednesday-Thursday "weekends" of mine. The first trip took place on October 9th and 10th, and combined a variety of focused riparian birding with a lot of "warbler neck" involvement. I didn't find any unusual warblers. There were lots of times I scanned Roosevelt Lake on each trip. The best bird I had was a Common Tern. I also went northeast of Payson to bird some of the spots below the Mogollon Rim to try and get some dates for American Dipper and American Three-toed Woodpecker. The high elevation targets were void, but a Cassin's Finch was kinda cool.
Something fun about birding is how quickly trips can turn around. The next around the corner can hold an amazing bird. That's why we always need to keep birding, and that's why we always need to bird our butts off. On October 16th, I reminded myself of that when I riparian and warbler-necked Tonto Creek via Gisela and then later at Roosevelt Lake. I didn't find anything notable outside of expected species, but I had a lot of fun. Views of Roosevelt Lake from camp were epic. And then there was the 17th coming up too...
On October 17th, I woke up and went to Tonto Creek via Bar X Crossing Road. The endless stands of riparian habitat make it one of my favorite places to bird in Gila County, as well as for the practice of Warbler-Neck. For some reason in my mind, I had a feeling that something awesome was going to happen in the Bar X riparian jungle. When I started searching through the stands of cottonwoods and willows, it didn't take me long to find an American Redstart.
It was my second American Redstart for Gila County, and right up ahead from the bird came an interesting call note from a warbler that needed immediate attention. I knew it was from the Black-throated variety, and as I caught sight of the warbler up in a group of tall willows and cottonwoods, a blurry glimpse gave me the impression of a Townsend's and Hermit Warbler hybrid. The bird flew to the next tree and I worked to get on it again quickly for the next view. My second look wasn't a glimpse and was a clear glance, and this followup look gave me ideas that it was an Arizona-statewide-rare Black-throated Green Warbler. I snapped pictures away with the thought of it being that species as documentation was the highest need. The warbler was fairly cooperative, and it allowed me to get a few pictures over the course of a few minutes. My heart was pounding and the few minutes felt like an hour. The call note the warbler gave reminded me of the call note I heard from a Black-throated Green Warbler a few years ago near Phoenix. It's how we would locate the bird a lot of the time. Knowing that the species hasn't been documented in Gila County before had me going, and as I reviewed my pictures, I screamed "Yes" out loud at the results. It was a Black-throated Green Warbler, and it appears to be the first Gila County record.
The dull olive ariculars, greenish back, and yellow across vent are good field marks for this Arizona rarity. After many times of birding Tonto Creek via Bar X, this was finally the time I found a really good warbler for the location with the understanding that the really good warblers certainly pass through. That is a fun aspect of birding and one has to keep putting in efforts and time to find the things that are really wanted to be found.
After enjoying the warbler, I still had a lot of habitat to cover. The jungle of Bar X can be intimidating, and when I choose to bird it, I know that I have to be prepared to do a lot of bushwhacking. Sometimes, one focused limb at a time...
It's good to look ahead sometimes too. In this case, can you see the Great Horned Owl roosting near the ground?
If I walked a few feet closer without catching sight of the bird near the ground, it would've flown up and surprised me that it was there all along.
After this first Great Horned Owl, I stumbled across several others too. An owl is an owl, which always equals out to being incredible!
The 17th was full of riparian and scanning Roosevelt Lake, and that week would carry into the next week of October 23 and 24. It was to be my third consecutive week of camping out in the Roosevelt Lake vicinity as my base for the birding trip. I was still on a high from finding the Black-throated Green Warbler at Tonto Creek via Bar X, and I decided that it would be my first stop of the trip. While tremendous luck was on my side six days prior to my last visit to the location, this visit gave me a 180 result. The location was slow and lacked diversity in bird life. It was a perfect example of how a location can have a bit of everything one day and then not have much the next day. You gotta love migration. After a few more stops, I hit started to bird Roosevelt Lake. Because I was on a two day trip, I planned on birding the east and south half of Roosevelt Lake the 1st day, and the west and north half on the second day. The Grapevine Group Site Recreation Area was second in line, and it's a spot where one walks out on a peninsula to get good overviews of the lake. Things got exciting when I found a few Sagebrush Sparrows along the route out to the lookout. This sparrow's status in Gila County is one that is quite the mystery, and these birds where my second personal record for Gila County, and I believe they are the third record for Gila County overall via eBird. For my Roosevelt Lake patch, it was also fun to get these birds.
Once I started scanning the lake, I picked out a Scoter floating and sleeping on the water with it's head down. I was stoked to have a Scoter species, but it took awhile for it to lift it's head up. From what I could see, it had a lot of white on it's face. When it did lift it's head up, I was pumped to see that it was the rare Black Scoter! It was an adult female plumaged bird, and it gave me solid scope views but was yet too distant to obtain photographs. In Gila County, this was the first ever sighting that I could find of Black Scoter, and I was looking at it. I scrambled around for the next few hours trying to find some sort of vantage point that I could walk out to to attempt photographs without luck before it got too dark outside. Here are some notes that I wrote about my observation, and I hope to write a report to the Arizona Birds Record Committee soon about this statewide Arizona rarity. It is a review species.
Notes: Adult female plumaged bird. Spotted west of Grapevine Point and not far, but considerably east of Windy Hill Recreation Site. Bird was resting it's head a majority of the time, but luckily lifted it's head for about five minutes. When resting, what caught my eye was the bulky shape of the bird, the short tail sticking up (not nearly as long as a Ruddy Duck), dark cap and nape to the bird's head, and a considerable amount of white on the face and an obvious short neck to it's resting posture to easily stand out from the Western and Clark's Grebes that were nearby. When the bird lifted it's head, the bill shape immediately caught my eye while my eyes were adjusting to looking at the rest of the bird. The bill was thin compared to other Scoter species, overall concaved shaped, and pointed upwards at the tip. To nail the identification for female Black Scoter, the birds face below the eye and cheeks were a wide and striking white coloration, which contrasted neatly with the birds dark thin looking cap and nape as if viewed from the profile. Aside from the contrasting head pattern, the bird's overall coloration when sitting on the water was dark. Other Scoters wouldn't show this much un-interrupted white on the face. When the Black Scoter flapped it's wings briefly, they were dark without any white on them. This bird was bulkier and longer bodied than a non-breeding adult male Ruddy Duck, and had a longer neck than a Ruddy.
I planned my next day around trying to relocate the Black Scoter, and after some intense searching, I wasn't able to find it.
During the following week, I initially had plans to bird on October 30th and 31st, again. Sickness came over me and it kept me down on the 30th. Even though I still felt a bit on the bad side on Halloween, I still went out to bird at Bar X and Roosevelt Lake. Bar X was pretty slow for a second straight week. I spent 2.5 hours there and the bird activity never really got going, kinda like most of Arizona's sports teams nowadays. Roosevelt Lake was a different story. In Arizona, late October and early November is prime time for waterfowl migration, and Roosevelt Lake was a perfect example as I started to cover the lake. Because I had family plans for Halloween, I had to leave the lake by 4 P.M., and when I saw the numbers of waterfowl on the lake, I was stunned. I regretted my start at Bar X rather than going straight to Roosevelt Lake, because rafts of waterfowl were everywhere. There were scattered rafts of ducks everywhere, and one raft contained about 400 Gadwall, and about a hundred each of Canvasback and Redhead. That was just one example. Schoolhouse Point came up big when I picked out a Scoter among one of the duck rafts adjacent to the boat launch. At one point, I thought I saw a glimpse of a white patch on the Scoter's secondaries. As with the Black Scoter, this scoter had it's head down too. Because I thought I saw a glimpse of a white patch on the bird, I started hoping that it would be the third and last Scoter I would need for Gila County-the White-winged Scoter. After a patient watch through my scope, the Scoter finally lifted it's head and moved it's body more to show off white panels on it's secondaries. It was a White-winged Scoter, and my sickness was numb during the two hours that I spent trying to document the Scoter. I threw my fists up in the air and shouted, "yes!". Here is the crappy but diagnostic documentation I was able to obtain of the White-winged Scoter, my 319th bird for Gila County.
Because it took me quite an few extra seconds to document the White-winged Scoter, I lost a lot of time I could've scanned elsewhere at Roosevelt Lake. All I could think was that I wished I would've scanned the lake during my entire trip. I had never seen it so full of waterbird variety, especially with high numbers of migrating waterfowl. My last stops were planned out to be at the northern and western side of the lake at Vineyard Canyon Recreation Site and Bermuda Flat Recreation Site. The planned second-to-last stop was at Vineyard Canyon, and I quickly had a bird of interest there too. A flock of six white geese were distant and were across the lake from Vineyard Canyon. From what I could see, there were five Snow Geese and a much smaller adult white goose, which I knew was either a pure Ross's Goose or a Ross's and Snow Goose hybrid. The views were tremendously distant at first, and heat waves made it difficult to get a real feel on the smaller goose. But luck would hit me for the second time of the day, and the geese swam much closer. As they closed in, the smaller goose got more and more Ross's like and when it got within my scope's view, there wasn't any doubt it was a pure Ross's Goose with a steep forehead and small, stubby bill. It was my 320th bird for Gila County, and an exciting one! By looking at the picture below, the Ross's Goose is the only bird facing left. Compare the size and structure with the adult Snow Goose facing right.
Halloween birding came through big time for me, it's not too often I get double Gila County life birds in one day. Fall is an epic time of year for birding, and I was satisfied with what I was able to get in the Gila during the time this year in 2019!