Today I stepped outside of Tres Rios Wetlands and birded the Lower Salt River Recreation Area northeast of Mesa in the Tonto National Forest. This is an excellent birding area, one of my favorites in Maricopa County. There are 10 recreation sites along the Salt River within a 13 mile stretch, which all hold very good birding opportunities.
My reason for going out to the Salt River today was to look for a Red-breasted Sapsucker that apparently was found on the Salt/Verde Christmas Bird Count at the Blue Point Recreation Site. I heard about this bird from an eBird report from a visiting birder named Jason a week ago. I didn't know anything about this bird, so I didn't want to spend the money to chase it without knowing further information about it. Yesterday I happened to find Jason's birding blog about his Arizona visit, and sure enough there was a picture of a male Red-breasted Sapsucker on it from the Salt River. He said someone he met from the CBC told him about this bird on his blog. When I got to Blue Point, I searched for the Red-breasted Sapsucker in the taller mesquites for over two hours without success. I then decided to cross the highway to go into the adjacent Pebble Beach Recreation Site and search the big mesquites directly across the Bush Highway from Blue Point. Minutes into checking these mesquites, the male RED-BREASTED SAPSUCKER quickly came into view. This is a very striking bird, and it was a pleasure to see. I had plenty of good looks at it in the hour I observed it on-and-off, but it is quite skittish and isn't the easiest to photograph, although I managed pictures that are good enough for identification. This is a good pure Red-breasted Sapsucker, with a solid extensive red breast without a trace of a black band on the breast and extensive red on it's head. The sapsucker as well as Ladder-backed and Gila Woodpeckers were active in this area until 11 A.M., and then activity went down. I couldn't refind the bird during a check later in the day, so earlier in the morning would probably be the best time to see it. The Pebble Beach Recreation Site is actually closed for parking and trailer use for the season. To see the Red-breasted Sapsucker, park at the Blue Point Recreation Site and walk across the street south to Pebble Peach. These mesquites would be just west of the Pebble Beach entrance gate, and directly south of the Blue Point parking lot and restrooms. Also, the sapsucker prefers the taller mesquites. A HUGE thanks to whoever found this bird on the Salt/Verde CBC and to Jason for reporting it to eBird!
There were several other good highlights throughout the Salt River area during the day, and I also made stops at Butcher Jones/Saguaro Lake, and Granite Reef. Other highlights at Blue Point/Pebble Beach other than the sapsucker were 3 BALD EAGLES (2 adults, one juv.), OSPREY, GREATER YELLOWLEGS, at least 4 GRAY FLYCATCHERS, 1 male VERMILION FLYCATCHER, HERMIT THRUSH, a flock of WESTERN BLUEBIRDS, and closeup views of a BROWN CREEPER.
At Butcher Jones and Saguaro Lake, highlights included WESTERN and EARED GREBES, RING-BILLED GULLS, BUFFLEHEADS, LESSER SCAUP, and GRAY FLYCATCHER.
Granite Reef highlights included another adult BALD EAGLE (my fourth BA EA of the day), good numbers of COMMON MERGANSERS, ~10 COMMON GOLDENEYE, NORTHERN PINTAIL, NEOTROPIC CORMORANT, and GRAY FLYCATCHER. About 60 species for the Salt River area.
To bird the Salt River Recreation Area a Tonto National Forest Recreation Pass needs to be purchased for $6 dollars at a nearby gas station. The closest station is a Circle K at the northeast corner of Power and McKellips Road. An overview of the area and directions to the recreation sites can be found at my website on the Salt River page here:
On another note, the Red-breasted Sapsucker was a great highlight for me, it was my 350th bird for Maricopa County since starting to bird the county in 2009. I wanted to reach 350 before this year was up, and things were looking like I was going to miss the mark by one. But when I found out more about this bird, I decided to chase it and lucked out with 13 hours left on the clock for 2012. Other birds I added this year for my Maricopa list were Smith's Longspur (thanks Kurt and Cindy!), Whimbrel (thanks Nathan!), Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and Evening Grosbeak (Thanks Mark!). I missed and struck out on a whole lot more, but the 5 I got were fantastic. Thanks to everyone who has found and helped me find birds in the County over the last four years. It has been fun. I didn't do a Big Year this year in Maricopa County (although I did miss it!), but it was still a very fun year with many good highlights.
I hope you all have a great New Years and Good Birding for this upcoming year!
Tommy DeBardeleben (Glendale, Arizona)
Photos of the Red-breasted Sapsucker: