Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Gila County: The 300 and..

Once I hit 298 species in Gila County (see last post), things started to get more and more interesting in my head.  With an array of different bird possibilities that I could get to reach 300 made the climb seem easier over time, but at the same time, finding those two birds could take some time.  For me, reaching 300 species in Gila was exciting.

I wanted to hustle.  I wanted to reach that personal milestone.  I wanted to have 300 species in a county outside of Maricopa County.  I wanted to accomplish that personal milestone in Gila County, which is one of Arizona's most under-birded counties.  I wanted to bird on the morning of September 23rd, 2018 before work.  And I did.

September 23rd was a decision that I look back on now and think of as dumb.  The dumb isn't dumb in a bad way.  All I did was drive for over two hours to Gisela, bird for about four hours at Tonto Creek via Gisela, and then drive back to Phoenix for over two hours to be able to get to work on time.  In the meantime, I brought a pair of crappy shoes, old clothes, and a fresh change of work clothes along.  I waded in Tonto Creek on-and-off for most of the time while birding Gisela that morning.  At times the water was over two feet deep, which resulted in me being soaked knees down.  After all, I was birding at a vital time of the year for eastern vagrants, and I was pleased with the effort I was putting in.  Tonto Creek via Gisela is situated at about 4000' in elevation and has a variety of habitats.  I got an odd #299 that day as I heard a Pinyon Jay calling from a hillside on the east side of Tonto Creek.  There were junipers on the hillside and in the rather close distance is some good habitat for the species, but it was a weird occurrence.  While I didn't like such for a heard only, I couldn't doubt what I heard, and it is a sound I've memorized.  I managed to convince myself to be pumped up about my observation.  After time and time again convincing myself to be pumped up, I think I was possibly "pumped up".  Whatever, 299.  I couldn't find an eastern warbler that I was hoping to find, but I did have 3 Northern Beardless-Tyrannulets.  It was cool to find more of them at this location, which is pretty far north for the species.

Gisela had over 60 species of birds show up for me that day, the place is always good for diversity.  Other than birds, many species of odes can be seen there.  Filagree Skimmer was one of them, and is one of the neatest dragonflies overall.

After I went to Gisela, I planned for my Wednesday and Thursday "weekend" that still holds true as I write.  I can't remember the last time I didn't have a Wednesday or Thursday off, and it has gone on for a long time.  I think it's quite awesome.  Most people aren't out on weekends, I have a lot of the places completely to myself, and that's the way I like it.  Over the actual weekend, birders were venturing out to San Carlos Lake and were reporting the Parasitic Jaeger as continuing.  I was pumped because I wanted to see it again, as I would be venturing out to the San Carlos Reservation once again to start my weekend off.  The thrill set in that this could be the trip that I reached 300 species in Gila County.  My plan was to go to Tufa Stone Tank and then San Carlos Lake.  I invited Dara and Jeff to come with me, and they said yes.  The Jaeger would be our biggest target of the day.  Even though I had killer looks the previous week (see previous post), I wanted to see it all over again.

Wednesday, September 26th came around.  Dara, Jeff, and I met in Globe early, got our San Carlos Reservation permits, and headed for Tufa Stone Tank.  Once we got there, we were busy from the start, as birds were everywhere and showed up in diversity to represent the Tufa Stone Tank I had been describing to them.  It's pretty rare I have others join my party in Gila, but I was glad to have Jeff and Dara with me.  The rarer birds cooperated too.  Dara really wanted to see the Grasshopper Sparrow I had seen in my previous visits here.  The Grasshopper Sparrow popped up as we got to it's haunts.  A few Dickcissels were present.  Another Clay-colored Sparrow appeared in midst of a large flock of Brewer's Sparrows.  Vaux's Swifts had a short window where they came in in numbers.  65 species at Tufa Stone Tank in nearly 4 hours was a solid effort.

Besides birds, we had another major highlight.  While walking through a thick stand of mesquite trees, we stirred up a Mojave Rattlesnake lifer for the three of us.  This snake was irritated by us at all times until we left.  Even when we got hundreds of feet away, I swear, I could still hear him rattling.  Even now, I think I might hear him.  He's still mad at us.  Lame jokes aside, this snake was cool to see, and is the 5th rattlesnake species I have seen personally.  Mojave Rattlesnakes are very dangerous due to more toxic venom than most rattlesnakes, and high yields of venom when striking on top of that.  Don't mess with this snake, I sure didn't mess with this snake at all during our time with it, not even a little.

This Twelve-spotted Skimmer was also cool to see.  Jeff in particular enjoyed seeing this dragon!

After Tufa Stone Tank, we made our way south towards San Carlos Lake for our Parasitic Jaeger search.  En route to the lake, I wanted to stop at the San Carlos Sewage Ponds for a few minutes to see if the Pyrrhuloxia would pop up for "us", I mean, me.  I wanted this Gila lifer a lot!  While the importance of the Jaeger was dominant, things quickly went downhill from that aspect.  A car pulled up to us and it was Chris Benish and Deb Finch.  I knew that they had to have been coming back from seeing the Jaeger.  Benish said, "we saw it, and then I think we saw it leave".  I thought he was joking at first because Benish does joke.  "Am I being punked", I asked.  But he wasn't joking.  He said it lifted up very high and flew to the west and well over the dam, continuing into the mountains and desert to the west.  It was a bummer to hear, and all we could hope for was to wait at the lake and have it fly back in.  After talking with Benish, we heard a cardinal species calling from the sewage ponds.  Dara spied it at the top of a tree, and right when we lifted our binoculars up, it flew back down.  It came back up again to another tree.  The lighting was bad, and before we could get any more looks, it flew off again.  I managed to snap some distant photographs of the bird in a desperate attempt for an identification as it flew off.  The looks I had gave me a Northern Cardinal vibe at first, but then, the lighting was bad.

We arrived at San Carlos Lake to find some other birders there looking for the missing-in-action Parasitic Jaeger.  And the Jaeger wouldn't return.  It didn't stop Dara, Jeff, and I from having fun.  We enjoyed lunch and waterbird scanning from a high peak overlooking the lake.  I got out my camera to check on my pictures of the Cardinal species.  As I zoomed up, Dara and I realized right away that the bird was indeed a Pyrrhuloxia!  I was shocked, and I didn't think the photographs would result in being awesome.  I was stoked because it meant it was my 300th species for Gila County, one that is quite scarce in the region and one that I've tried for and missed before.

As it was time to head out of the lake, I backed up and got stuck again, in lose freaking sand.  Two weeks after the previous incident, the same thing happened again.  I really blew up this time.  Luckily, Jeff and Dara were there.  Jeff had lots of great pointers in getting me out of the deadly San Carlos sand.  After 20 minutes of trying to figure things out, the teamwork managed to drive me out.  Good grief.  After that, we said till next time.  I continued on further to explore some tanks and grasslands further north into the San Carlos Reservation for the remainder of the day.

These grasslands and tanks have some good potential.  They are located on the east side of Highway 60 if going north towards Show Low, shortly before the descend down into the Salt River Canyon.  Tanks are numerous here, but the ones I covered were Tanks Canyon Tank, Upper Highway Tank, and Sycamore Tank.  While I didn't find anything good in the tanks (Upper Highway Tank was the only tank with water), it was good to scout the area out.  On a funny note, this area is great for Pinyon Jays.  I heard a ton of them while hiking back from Tanks Canyon Tank.  Fun birds to detect!  It made the Gisela one seem lame.  The grasslands surrounding the tanks and pinyon-juniper forest impressed me.

After the tanks and grasslands, I explored Seneca Lake Recreation Area for an hour and I camped out at Jones Water Campground after checking habitat worthy for Long-eared Owls.  The next day, September 27th, was spent going down to Winkleman, birding the Gila River, and then visiting Roosevelt Lake to close out the day and the trip.  I didn't have many bird highlights worth shouting about on this second day.  A Javelina family was neat, and Roosevelt Lake held Semipalmated Plovers and a few Common Terns.

October 3rd and 4th resulted in me going to Roosevelt Lake on the 3rd, camping out, and then going to Senecca Lake early on the 4th and exploring different spots while heading back south down AZ 60/77.  I didn't have any major highlights, but the explorations were fun.  This Coues' White-tailed Deer was cool to see.

Riparian forests are one of the funnest places to bird in the fall.  I love searching for eastern warblers and vireos in these woodlands.  Pictured here is one of my favorite Gila County locations, which is the section of Tonto Creek via Bar X Crossing Road located in the town of Tonto Basin.  This place is incredible, and the possibilities of what can show up are sky high.  Here is one of the favorite spots to walk through when I bird at Bar X.  A Great Horned Owl often greets me as I make my way through this stretch..

October 11th was the date of this adventure.  Birds were everywhere at Bar X, just not an eastern vagrant I was hoping for.  I tallied 62 different species that day, and many species showed in high numbers.  The time was a blast, no doubt!  I did have an epic highlight when I found what is only my 2nd Broad-billed Hummingbird for Gila County, and the first was at this location too.  I finished the latter hours of the day at Roosevelt Lake.  That good ol' Reddish Egret still continued.

On October 18th, I did the same thing.  Call it Bar X and Roosevelt Lake.  This day I was determined to find an eastern warbler, let me tell you all, I was determined!  The first half of the search at Bar X was filled with birds, but no eastern warbler.  Lawrence's Goldfinches highlighted this portion.  And then I entered my favorite stretch, where it was time to be greeted by Great Horned Owl.

While walking along this dense riparian jungle scanning carefully, it finally happened.  I crossed paths with an eastern warbler at Bar X after many visits.  It was an American Redstart.  This was an overdue Gila County lifer on top of it being my first eastern warbler for Bar X.  I saw this bird just in the nick of time, as it disappeared just as quickly as it appeared.

I finished this day at Roosevelt Lake.  Bermuda Flat held Forster's Terns, a Franklin's Gull, and that good ol' continuing Reddish Egret.  Scanning from Cholla Recreation Site gave me my second Gila County lifer of the day and one that I'd also consider a little overdue, a Horned Grebe.  Yes!!

On November 1st, I went back out to the San Carlos Reservation, and for the second time, I went out to explore the tanks and grasslands surrounded by pinyon-pine, juniper, and ponderosa pine forest.  It was suggested to me to start here first by Mr. Caleb, and he was right.  The grassland birds are likely to fly around a lot more first thing in the morning.  Those grassland birds, such as longspurs, are what I was after.  The Tanks I explored were Tanks Canyon Tank, Brushy Basin Tank, and Upper Highway Tank.  The first two tanks mentioned were passed along a hike I took that went for about two miles.  It was pleasant, and a large mixed flock of Pinyon and Mexican Jays moved gregariously through the area.  A Prairie Falcon was also present.  It took awhile, but once I got close to Brushy Basin Tank, I heard my first Gila county longspur in a Chestnut-collared Longspur calling as it flew overhead.  It was great to hear the bird, my 303rd bird for Gila County.  Hearing the Longspur also confirmed that the place has potential.  Other grassland birds such as McCown's and Lapland Longspurs, Short-eared Owl, Sprague's Pipit, and Rough-legged Hawk weren't detected, but it doesn't they can't be found another time.  Time will tell.  Here are a few pictures of the grassland and tanks.

After the tanks and grasslands, I went to Tufa Stone Tank.  Even though it was afternoon, Tufa was still pretty impressive.  The water levels are considerably lower, but they did hold diving ducks in Red-breasted Merganser and Bufflehead.  Late day circumstances prevented good songbird activity, but Lawrence's Goldfinches were nice.

After Tufa, I went to my usual Roosevelt Lake to scan a few of my favorite spots.  The lake was fun as always, and that good ol' Reddish Egret continued...

I'm excited to find out what November and December will hold for me in Gila County, and I have a lot of ground to cover...

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Gila County: Two Epic Birds

My last post recapped three trips to Gila County that were extremely fun for the most part.  Each trip had it's exciting moments.  The biggest loss was finding the first Jaeger of my life with distant looks on San Carlos Lake.  It was even on the Gila County side of the lake, and in the right spot.  I goofed up my chances at getting better looks at the bird, and I couldn't relocate it after I initially saw it.  For some reason, I thought it was over, but...

A few days after, Babs Buck went out to the lake and saw the Jaeger.  She had rather distant photos of the bird floating on the water, but structure-wise, it did not look right for Pomarine Jaeger.  And by the views I saw and a field mark I saw of the bird while I did observe it, it wasn't a Long-tailed Jaeger either.  That would leave us with Parasitic Jaeger as our main option.  I felt a lot better about the sighting I had, and it got even better when Dave Stesjkal, Mark Stevenson, and Molly Pollock went out to San Carlos Lake and confirmed it was a Parasitic Jaeger with Dave's photos.  It was exciting that the bird was still at the lake the day before my next Gila County trip, and a day that I was planning to go to San Carlos Lake again.  The Parasitic Jaeger quickly became my biggest target of the trip.  I wanted extensive looks at it, and I wanted to watch it and study it up close.

Dave, Mark, and Molly also found two other birds that would be Gila lifers for me that I was targeting:  American Redstart at Tufa Stone Tank and a Pyrrhuloxia at the San Carlos Sewage Ponds.  On September 19th, 2018, I started my day off early at Tufa Stone Tank with that American Redstart as my main target.  I had 64 species at the Tank during this time, my first time in four visits that I got under 70 species.  Despite a good effort that I put in, I wasn't able to relocate the American Redstart.  But an interesting call note that I heard in some dense vegetation could have been it.  Regardless, birding Tufa Stone Tank was a good occasion once again.  Highlights included Dickcissel and the continuing Grasshopper Sparrow for a third straight week, as well as the Tank's first known Semipalmated Plover.

After Tufa, I made a quick stop at the San Carlos Sewage Ponds to try for the Pyrrhuloxia.  No luck on that.  I thought, "Oh no, 0 for 2 on targets.  That leaves me with one target left, the Parasitic Jaeger.  If I can go 1 for 3 with it being the bird I land, that completes the trip".  About an hour later while at San Carlos Lake, I was scanning the same stretch of water repeatedly where I first caught sight of the Jaeger the previous week.  I wasn't having luck there, and I decided to go to another viewpoint that was about a half mile west and one that would put me closer the the water.  As I got to the spot, I had a great view of the lake, and with my naked eye, I saw that wanted shape close to the shore.  Right when I got there and before I could even get out of my truck..

I can remember saying, "oh shoot" and I quickly got out to observe the Parasitic Jaeger.  After snapping a few photographs, the Jaeger, along with hundreds of other birds, started to take flight.  I started to snap away.

The Jaeger seemed to stay up awhile, and learning from that valuable lesson from the previous week, I made sure to get scope looks of the bird in flight, take some pictures of it in flight, and once it would land on the water, keep good tabs on it.  And it didn't take long for the Jaeger to start harassing the heck out of gulls.

After I had some good looks from where I was at of the bird as it was in flight and getting some distant flight photos, I saw that the Jaeger was swimming very regularly off of a spit of land that carried out onto the lake for a good distance.  I decided to take a hike down to the spot to get closer and in hopes of the Jaeger flying closer.  The bird stayed on the water for a long time, and drifted off from the Pinal County waters into the Gila County waters while I was watching it.  From this point, Gila County came in further from the north and took up more of the lake from this point, limiting Pinal County waters.  I loved this spot on the lake because of that :)

After about thirty minutes, I got bored with the bird distantly floating out on the water.  As I looked over some of my pictures, I looked back up to see that it had left.  I didn't know where it went.  In hopes that it would come back, I decided to stay put.  It wasn't long before some terns decided to come and feed right by the spit of land that I was on.  There was a Black Tern, two Common Terns, and a Forster's Tern.  All of them were coming in close to feed, and I got some shots of the Black Tern, as well as both of the Common Terns.  It was fun to watch, observe, and study them up close.

The terns stayed for a long time.  I decided to wait in case the Jaeger would come in and harass them.  It wasn't a bad idea that I had when I saw that Jaeger flying in.  I looked up to see it at just the right time to get lucky with this photograph.  This is Arizona, folks, not a pelagic.  Although, the weather outside was a little rainy and windy, making it Jaeger-like weather with wavy water and dim lighting..

With swift flight and direct movement, the Parasitic came in like a clever pirate, the one I was hoping to hang out with.  And he headed straight for the terns.

From there, Parasitic decided to chase one of the Common Terns.  The sounds that the tern screamed out during the chase sounded like a monkey being murdered.  On the Jaeger's side, all he was simply saying was "surrender your meal".  The chase was amazing to see up close and 50-60 feet away from me at times.

Finally, the tern realized that he wasn't going to enjoy his meal, and he dropped the small fish that he had caught.  And the Parasitic Jaeger got a meal that he didn't work for, but worked hard to steal.

After the Jaeger left, the terns continued to fish more.  And I decided to wait again to see if the Jaeger would come back after he drifted further out onto that water, but still in sight.  The process happened again, and it was once again fun to watch.  This time, the chase took place further away from me than the first time.

After about two hours standing on the spit water level with the lake, I decided to leave.  The Jaeger continued further west out onto the reservoir and out of sight, and I decided that that was a SIGHTING!  I also got lucky with a new ode, this Striped Saddlebags.

After San Carlos Lake, it started raining hard and would continue to rain hard for most of the rest of the day.  I couldn't really do much birding in the weather.  Although I wanted to bird more and more, the Jaeger left me content.  I went to Roosevelt Lake, where I would spend the night again and camp out.  The next day was forecasted to be clear and sunny, and I had some decisions to make of where to go birding.  And there were many things I wanted to do, but one idea was sticking with me much more than others.

I woke up early the next day on September 20th and headed north to the Mogollon Rim to bird the high country for awhile.  I wanted to make another attempt at American Three-toed Woodpecker for Gila County, something that I've done a few times already without success.  Something else I really wanted to do was listen to the Elk bugle up in the mountains there, something that I haven't enjoyed in at least four years.  Elk are one of my favorite animals, and hearing them bugle all over the place and in good quantity is remarkable.  And as I pulled up to my destination, Colcord Road, and started driving along it, Elk were heard everywhere.  Wow!

American Three-toed Woodpecker is a species that I love to see in Arizona.  The are generally a Rocky Mountain species in the west and in Arizona, they typically stay above the Mogollon Rim, which is the southern boundary of the Colorado Plateau.  On eBird, there are a few reports of them in Gila County in places just below the Rim (in which anywhere above the rim in this region is Coconino County).  Two of those three reports have come from the Colcord Road vicinity.  While I've tried about three times in this area, I've come up empty.  However, there is this road/path that follows a telephone pole line that I noticed on Google Maps.  It extended up towards the Rim, and went through some patches of burned forest (which ATTW thrives in).  I decided to give it a shot.  The road was pleasant and climbed up steeply in places, and it was beautiful.  Elk could be heard everywhere.  As I scanned the path before me, a female Elk was in sight.

Forest birds and the sounds of elk were everywhere.  Hairy Woodpeckers were quite common, and I chased down some pecking sounds that would reveal to be Hairy Woodpeckers.  I was checking anything that I could to land my hopeful target.  And then I heard it.  The loud, hollow, rather low and outbursting "pwwiiiieeek" call I have heard many times in the past of the American Three-toed Woodpecker!  It was distant, but as I cupped my hands to my ears, I could hear it much more clearly.  The bird talked for about 30 seconds.  I continued up the path further where there was more burned timber mixed with live timber.  I wasn't able to hear or find anymore Three-toeds past the original point I heard them.  A crack in the woods by me had me curious and as I paused I realized that a big bull elk was lurking in the woods.  He was a full grown Elk, one of those with six points on each antler.  Before I got to the spot he was at, I heard some powerful grunting bugles coming from an elk right in the area, so it had to have been him.  I knelt down to keep him from seeing me while enduring a swarm of mosquitoes, and the bull must have caught my scent.  Somehow, I watched him drift off and then completely dissapear without making a sound.  I was blown away at his intelligence when it came to escaping.

On my way back down, I heard the sound of the Three-toed Woopecker again, and this time it was closer to the trail.  After hearing it call, I worked my way into the woods where the sounds came from.  While moving in pursuit towards the calls, I heard tapping on wood.  It made it easy for me to track down.  And before I knew it, I had my first ever look at an American Three-toed Woodpecker in Gila County, my 298th bird in Gila!  It was fun to watch the woodpecker flake off bark in typical fashion, and Gila County joined Coconino, Greenlee, and Apache Counties for counties I have this woodpecker in in Arizona.  This bird was probably a fourth of a mile below the rim and Coconino County.

Another Three-toed Woodpecker called as I watched this one, giving me two of them.  And then one started drumming, which is always awesome to hear.  Working my way down the trail slowly I enjoyed more birds, including good looks at both Townsend's and Hermit Warblers.

For the remainder of the day, I hit some spots up around Payson and went to four spots at Roosevelt Lake.  Roosevelt didn't give me anything super exciting as further editions, but I enjoyed the continuing Reddish Egret, Red-necked Phalaropes, a large flock of American Avocets, American White Pelicans, and five Caspian Terns.

South side of Roosevelt Lake via Schoolhouse Point Rec. Area.  Salt River 

These two days were another great two days of birding in Gila County, resulting in another great trip.  The best highlight of the trip was by far the Jaeger, which is my bird of 2018 so far.  Before the trip, I decided to count it as Parasitic Jaeger based on my observations and I what I noted in the field as well as the fact that others refound it as a continuing bird.  While it would go down as my Gila County bird the previous week, it felt like I really officially got it as a lifer this trip.  What an incredible time it was enjoying it.  The American Three-toed Woodpeckers have now put me up to 298 species.  As I continue to bird the County, it keeps getting funner and funner.  What will my next few trips hold?