Yesterday on October 12th, 2013, I headed up into the northeastern part of Maricopa County to explore the areas of Mount Ord and Sunflower. The latter contained visits to both the Bushnell Tanks and the Old Beeline Highway. All of these hotspots are accessed off of Highway 87. It was a pleasant day of birding.
My first stop was at Mount Ord, where I had several good highlights. This is Maricopa County's easiest "high country" to access, and it is a location favorite of mine. I spent three hours on Mount Ord, with the entire time being on Forest Road 1688, which is three miles up the road to Mount Ord after turning off from the Beeline Highway (S.R. 87). My main highlight was detecting at least 10 MOUNTAIN CHICKADEES throughout the two mile hike one way on Forest Road 1688. These chickadees were mainly in pairs, although I did find three together and one loner. Other than that, they were in pairs and were well scattered throughout 1688, from the beginning stretches near the water tank and near the end of the two miles. This was only my second time ever of finding a Mountain Chickadee in Maricopa County, with the last time being a small flock of four near the summit in November of 2011. Forest Road 1688 is about a thousand feet lower in elevation than the summit of Mount Ord (7,100'), and I found it interesting that chickadee numbers were high like this in the lower forested reaches. This species is rare in Maricopa County for the most part, this is obviously an irruptive year for the species, who will show up in the lowlands at times too. It'll be interesting to see when the winter months come, what the chickadee numbers will result in in this region.
Perhaps the bird of the day, was one that tragically got away. When I was near the end of Road 1688, I heard what I'm sure was probably 99% a Downy Woodpecker. The bird gave both of it's usual calls a few times and then stopped. I wasn't able to track it down, whatever was making the calls, but it sounded perfect for a Downy Woodpecker. Ladder-backed Woodpecker sounds very similar to Downy Woodpecker based on the call notes I heard. While Ladder-backed Woodpecker is very unusual for this elevation, I did once have one in a forested drainage above 1688 around this time frame of the year in a previous year. They do show up out of habitat on occasion, which is why I can't call this bird for sure. If hiking in this area, do keep this possibility in mind. Downy Woodpeckers are very rare in this area, but have increased in recent years in this area and the county. There have been 3 or 4 sightings in the last 5 years.
Other than the Mountain Chickadees and very possible Downy, there were some other good highlights on Forest Road 1688. Another one was a lingering female HEPATIC TANAGER. This is the latest date I've had this species at Mount Ord (or elsewhere in Maricopa County) in many visits. I also found 2 PYGMY NUTHATCHES together along this stretch, another species that is uncommon in the County and can be hard to find. This year, however, has been very good on Mount Ord for the Pygmy Nuthatch. WHITE-BREASTED NUTHATCHES were very common throughout, and I surprisingly didn't have any Red-breasted Nuthatches. 2 OLIVE WARBLERS were present, and I also found at least 5 BROWN CREEPERS. I also had several empid highlights which contained a DUSKY FLYCATCHER, 2 HAMMOND'S FLYCATCHERS, and even a GRAY FLYCATCHER that was notably dipping it's tail continuously like a Phoebe would. Woodpeckers I did find were several HAIRY and ACORN WOODPECKERS, NORTHERN FLICKERS, and a nice male RED-NAPED SAPSUCKER. A SHARP-SHINNED HAWK was also seen flying overhead. Other highlights among 28 species that I recorded on Forest Road 1688 of Mount Ord included WESTERN SCRUB-JAYS, BEWICK'S WREN, JUNIPER TITMOUSE, large numbers of WESTERN BLUEBIRDS, and CANYON WREN. I wanted to go to the summit area of Mount Ord to search for more chickadees and other goodies, but the birding areas nearby along Sycamore Creek were calling my name.
At Bushnell Tanks, a few highlights included a nice flock of BUSHTITS, a JUNIPER TITMOUSE, a flock of BRIDLED TITMOUSE, HUTTON'S VIREO, and BLACK-THROATED GRAY WARBLER.
White-crowned Sparrow (juvenile)
Walking on the Old Beeline Highway, the main highlight was seeing a TOWNSEND'S SOLITAIRE and hearing at 5-6 of them, both in song and in their unique high pitched callnotes. I also heard a late SUMMER TANAGER calling along the creek.
It was another great day of birding and exploring outdoors! For something slightly but not really off topic: This is how I get myself into trouble, but it's not really trouble. Whenever I see a potential birding location I haven't explored, I find a way to explore it. It's a form of OCD, and I'm not happy until I explore it. The Mazatzal Mountains (Mt. Ord, Four Peaks, Slate Creek Divide) have a lot of exploring to do, and I have explored a lot of it. With that being said, there is still more to explore on the Maricopa County side of this mountain range in the higher elevations. Between Mount Ord and Four Peaks lies this forested mountain area. It is somewhat limited as shown in this picture, but it is on a north facing slope (birds love north facing slopes). I know how to access this area by a backroad, and it is now one of my hopeful explorations in the future. I have been on the road to access it once and was three miles south of the access point, but was out of time for the day and was exploring another awesome Mazatzal Mountain area between Four Peaks and Mount Ord. Hopefully, this will be next. Even though I have distant views of this mountain area from Ord and Sunflower, I was able to make out a small stand of Douglas fir also (which I have only seen on Slate Creek). I've gotta get up there. Here is a picture of this good looking spot: