Friday, May 30, 2014

Birding Madness in the Mazatzal Mountains

Hi Everyone,

Yesterday and today on May 29th and May 30th, Tim Marquardt and I continued our explorations of Maricopa County's higher elevations.  So far this year, this has taken place in the Mazatzal Mountains.  The locations have of course included Slate Creek Divide, Mount Ord, and during the last two days, we explored several forested areas between Mount Ord and Four Peaks.  One of the areas is called Forest Road 422.  This road is accessed from Road 143, the main road up to Four Peaks if coming from Highway 87.  We also birded within the area of the Lone Pine Saddle, which has trails here that access the summits of the Four Peaks themselves, which are the highest points in Maricopa County.

Views of Roosevelt Lake from the Brown's Peak Trail, a short distance up from the Lone Pine Saddle.  Roosevelt Lake is the largest reservoir in central Arizona.  

Our main point of interest was to bird and explore along Forest Road 422.  If one looks on a map, this road will read "Mazatzal Divide Trail".  I explored this road two years ago, and have been wanting to come back since.  If coming up the rough Forest Road 143 from Highway 87 (the main road up to Four Peaks) for 20-21 miles, the turnoff to Forest Road 422 is on the left side of the road and heads in the northwest direction.  This road is extremely rough and difficult, and can only be done by a high clearance vehicle.  We had a jeep Tim rented so it wasn't too hard, but most vehicles would soon find themselves in deep trouble if driving this road.

Thanks Tim for making this trip possible with the addition of an awesome Jeep Wrangler.  Jeeps or high clearance pickup trucks are whats needed for birding this remote area.  And Tim and I came prepared.

High clearance is needed, and four wheel drive is highly recommended.  Forest Road 422 heads north for a considerable duration, and we drove over 9 miles of it.  Our main stop came at roughly 5.2 miles, which is a trail that heads off to the west of Forest Road 422 and drops down into a forested drainage.  Once this drainage is reached, it heads up through a thick and forested mountain full of tall ponderosa pine and oaks, and it then tops out at the 6200' Pine Mountain.  We found out the name of the mountain by running into a knowledgeable hunter named Chris, who told us a lot about the area.

An overview of Forest Road 422, which is signed off as "Mazatzal Divide Trail" on overview maps.  At the 5.2 mile mark, is where we camped.  Tim stayed in the Jeep, and I slept outside in my tent.  As I looked at overview maps once back home, my tent was right on the county line.  My head must have been in Gila and the rest of me was in Maricopa.  I'm so sick of these wretched conflicts with county lines.

Another area we planned to access is a forested mountain called Boulder Mountain (which Chris also told us the name of).  This mountain is roughly four miles north of Pine Mountain, and is south of Mount Ord.  If standing on Mount Ord, you can see a nice amount of conifers consisting of ponderosa pine and some Douglas fir on north facing slopes on Boulder Mountain, which is about 6300' in elevation.  However, if coming to Boulder Mountain from the south, you can only see a few pines.  From looking at a map, I calculated a point from Forest Road 422 at roughly 8 miles that would be about a 0.7 mile hike up to the vicinity of Boulder Mountain, which would only be moderate hiking once reaching that point.  But as Tim and I pulled up, it was nothing but thick brush and manzanita, something that would be completely miserable for even a short distance.  We knew it would have to wait for another time.

Boulder Mountain, your like that hot girl who is so hard to get.  Why can't you make life easier on me, huh???!!!!!!

After scouting out the area, we decided to hike and explore up the drainage in the immediate vicinity of the Pine Mountain area for the majority of our trip.

Pine Mountain, Maricopa County, Arizona.  You've gotta love this north facing mountain with these tall stands of Ponderosa Pine throughout the entire mountain.

As I explored this area two years ago, I felt it had a lot of potential, and I wanted to explore it a lot more on this trip.  Tim and I didn't wait long, and started to explore the drainage heading up in the direction of Pine Mountain on May 29 in the early afternoon.  It was drizzling with rain and the sky was filled with dark clouds when we started.  This drainage on mountain area is cool, moist, humid, and thickly wooded, probably because it is entirely north facing.  In the drainage, most of the rocks have a considerable amount of moss on them.  Tall ponderosa pines make up most of the thick woods, but the entire area is good oak understory and very thick manzanita.  Walking on a trail along the drainage or in the drainage itself is the only choice of exploring this area, which is otherwise too thick with manzanita and other thick vegetation.  And surprisingly enough, there is a marked trail that goes through along the drainage for a good duration.

The drainage that heads south in the upward direction to Pine Mountain is so thick it's very hard to get a good picture of a "drainage shot".

Throughout most of the Pine Mountain Drainage, the rocks along the drainage bottom are covered in moss.  That indicates that this is a very moist area.  Spotted Owls have gotta be in here somewhere I would think because of this awesome factor.

From the start, we heard a lot of different birds.  An early and interesting highlight came when we heard a GRAY VIREO singing in the vicinity of the ponderosa pine and oak forest.  It was repeatedly returning to the same tree and was carrying insects, as if it was feeding young.  Juniper habitat is nearby, but it seemed like a considerable distance away for a Gray Vireo to take up residence in midst of pine and oak trees.

What is in it's mouth?

Is it a spider in his mouth?  Look at those pine needles in his face.

A pair of noisy ZONE-TAILED HAWKS were also nearby, and Tim and I located a probable nest for them up high up in a pine tree.

Zone-tailed Hawks are a majestic raptors.  It is neat to see them sitting in pines.  They are adaptable to many different habitats and elevations also.

Interestingly, there are a lot more ACORN WOODPECKERS in this drainage and along Road 422 than I have had a Slate Creek and Mount Ord combined.

HAIRY WOODPECKERS are also plentiful too in this area.

WESTERN WOOD-PEWEES are very high in numbers too here at this time of year as compared to other Mazatzal Mountain Maricopa locations.  One pewee that Tim and I saw in poor light that I was able to photograph turned out to be an OLIVE-SIDED FLYCATCHER.

PLUMBEOUS and HUTTON'S VIREOS were both numerous in the drainage, and further north up Forest Road 422 in a mixed stand of ponderosa pine, oak, and re-vegetating habitat from a small fire we had several singing BELL'S VIREOS.  The habitat seemed pretty odd for Bell's, and is over 5000'.

Mountain warblers were also numerous in the drainage, especially BLACK-THROATED GRAY and GRACE'S WARBLERS.  VIRGINIA'S WARBLER and PAINTED REDSTART were in good numbers also, and the Painted Redstarts entertained like usual.

WESTERN and HEPATIC TANAGERS were both present and vocal also, but not as vocal and present as BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAKS, who were very numerous.

Tim and I even heard a callnote that sounded perfect for a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, but we weren't able to get a visual of the bird.  After a few hours of exploring close to 3/4 mile up the drainage, Tim and I headed back to camp for a break before coming back to the drainage for owling.  This took us out of ponderosa pine habitat and into chaparral and juniper.  We had CRISSAL THRASHER, JUNIPER TITMOUSE, and singing BLACK-CHINNED SPARROWS, as well as more GRAY VIREOS singing where they should be.  Once above the pines, I then heard the call of a DUSKY-CAPPED FLYCATCHER down in the drainage.  I was pretty shocked to hear it here, but it was awesome to have a Dusky-capped at another Maricopa County location.  The flycatcher was also distant and only called twice, so at the time I was also doubting myself, even though I'm very familiar with the call.  This species seems to be tied in more with sycamore lined drainages, and it shocked me, because there isn't a sycamore anywhere in this drainage or nearby.

After a break and dinner at camp, Tim and I headed back down into the drainage at 5:30 P.M. where we would stay down in the drainage until dark, and owl for a few hours after dark.  It was a treacherous thing to do, but finding cool things calls for crazy measures.  To aid our route, we tied toilet paper on overhead tree branches to easily mark our route.  We did pack it back up on the way out, because we strongly believe in the leave no trace ethics.  The main goal for our trip would start once it got dark, and that goal was trying for Flammulated Owl and Mexican Whip-poor Will, two birds we both need for our Maricopa County lists.  They are also two birds we would want to confirm in the Mazatzal Mountains, which haven't been reported for a long time.  As the darkness hit, we heard a WESTERN SCREECH-OWL start calling up from an area that seemed to be populated more with juniper and chaparral, even though we were standing in pines.  And then the odd happened, we started to hear ELF OWLS.  Tim and I were at an elevation of about 5500', and weren't expecting Elf Owl, although they have been found higher than that, recently even at 6000'.  But this became strange as we found the Elf Owls foraging and associating in ponderosa pines, and we had great visuals also.  Throughout the night, we had at least 4 Elf Owls in the pine and oak habitat.  Reading up in the Arizona Breeding Bird Atlas, Elf Owl isn't one to be expected in any sort of montane forest habitat, but is "found in oak woodlands in lower slopes of drainages where there are also sycamores".  Perhaps this isn't as weird as I think it is, but it was very interesting to have these birds in the middle of the drainage rather than the lowest slopes of it.  Because there are a lot of junipers and oaks, these owls are probably more tied in with those trees.  We also then heard a NORTHERN SAW-WHET OWL calling once it got dark.  I initially thought it was a Northern Pygmy-Owl and I couldn't hear well because the Elf Owls were so loud.  Once listening to Tim's recording closely, it clearly revealed a Saw-whet Owl rather than a Pygmy-Owl.  After a few hours, we didn't hear our hopeful targets, but did have fun seeing the Elf Owls and hearing the other two.  The drainage is also full of obnoxious insects, I thought for sure a Whip-poor-will would be down there.  After Tim and I finished the drainage and climbed up a steep ravine back up to camp in the dark, we headed back south down Road 422 for 5 miles (heard another Elf Owl) and then went south for two more miles to the Lone Pine Saddle to try for Flam and Whip.  After an hour and change of hiking the trail there through higher elevation pine and oak, we struck out on both again.  Tim did locate two eyes reflecting up in a tall pine tree of a small bird.  But it never called or showed itself well enough for an identification.  We then called it quits for the night, and COMMON POORWILL was the only nightbird at Lone Pine Saddle.  Back at camp, I woke up in my tent a few times, and one of the times, I heard another Elf Owl.

Elf Owl in a ponderosa pine tree.  I am really kicking myself about thinking we had a Pygmy-Owl rather than a Saw-whet Owl.  The Elf Owls were so loud, it made it hard to hear things.  But, this is another Mazatzal Mountains location for Saw-whet!! At least we know they are in here too!

Today on the 30th, we got up early and hiked the drainage again up in the direction of Pine Mountain.  We both woke up from the sound of a truck coming down the road, which turned out to be the hunter Chris who I mentioned earlier.  We were very shocked to see him, and he was even more shocked to see us.  This area rarely has any traffic, especially for people doing things like birding!  Chris was a knowledgeable person about the entire area, and told us the names of the places and mountains around us, which we were very glad to hear about.  More interestingly, Chris knew a lot about the wildlife in the area.  For those who don't know, Four Peaks has one of the largest densities of Black Bear in Arizona.  Chris has seen many, and he has seen a male bear roaming the drainage area (male is called a boar), as well as a few sows with cubs.  So several families of Black Bears reside in the area of the drainage we were hiking, wow!  He showed me several pictures, and there was also a huge bear he photo'd up at Slate Creek.  It's just a reminder that these big creatures are out there!  Chris has also seen Mountain Lion in the drainage.  What is also interesting is that there is an estimated population of about 75 Elk in the Four Peaks area.  Elk are also found at Mount Ord and Slate Creek in small numbers, which is something I knew was rare but I didn't know there were that many spread out throughout Maricopa County in the Mazatzals!  Chris also has had Wild Turkey in the Pine Mountain drainage as well as a few in the Slate Creek area.  Although rare, it is good to know these scarce birds for the region are around.

Once hiking and exploring the drainage again for a few hours to start off the day, Tim and I had a high abundance of activity but didn't really have anything different from yesterday.  We did positively find two DUSKY-CAPPED FLYCATCHERS calling back-and-fourth to each other in the area I heard the bird yesterday.  Tim was able to get a great sound recording, and I got photographs.

This is the second location I have found Dusky-capped Flycatchers in in Maricopa County.  They are definitely on the increase in spreading their population in Arizona!

To close out the day before heading back to the Phoenix heat, we hiked the Brown's Trail at Lone Pine Saddle for an hour.  We had highlights of an OLIVE-SIDED FLYCATCHER, ZONE-TAILED HAWK, and a nice male WESTERN TANAGER among the birds we encountered.  There is a lot of exploring to do in this area, and it was good that Tim and I got some of it out of the way with good birding efforts.  Thanks Tim for the awesome trip!!

And for grins, here is the other side of Pine Mountain!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Box Bar Birding

At the end of May and the beginning of June, it starts to get very hot in Arizona.  In the lowlands anyway, which covers most of the state.  Fire season is very dangerous, and most folks aren't out and about.  For the birders, they still go out birding.  This usually lasts from very early to early, a few hours in other words.  For example, I'll use my trek today.  I went to the Box Bar Recreation Site along the Verde River in the Tonto National Forest.  Bird diversity is mainly limited to breeders, but it is also a time for the last wave of migrants to pass through.  It seems like this time frame is one of the best for finding eastern vagrants in Arizona, especially adult male eastern warblers.  Phoenix just had the Magnolia Warbler not too long ago, an adult male, and some lady found an adult Chestnut-sided Warbler male a few days ago.  In Tucson several years ago near this time, an adult male Prairie Warbler was found.  Although it isn't very rare, I found a singing adult male Townsend's Warbler at the Hassayampa River Preserve a few years ago at the beginning of June.  So today, I tried my luck at Box Bar for that particular reason for a few hours.  With lush stands of willow and cottonwood along the north and south flowing Verde River, there's a good bet (although still rare, but still) for their being that possibility of something being good in the trees somewhere.

Spoiler alerts don't usually come this soon, but I'll say now, I didn't find anything particularly rare that I haven't seen in Maricopa County.  It was a fun few hours of birding, and I did have a few neat highlights.  The rarest bird I had was a fly-by Broad-billed Hummingbird.  These hummers are rare but annual throughout Maricopa County annually.  They have a distinctive call note in flight, which sounds similar to that of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet.  Despite that was the only semi-rare or rare bird of the day, the thick riparian area was filled with birds.

During the hike, my first cool highlight came from this adult Peregrine Falcon.  For a second, I was hoping it would be a Mississippi Kite before I lifted my binoculars up.  There was a historical breeding record for Mississippi Kite somewhere along the Verde River, Maricopa County's only breeding record of the species.  On a county scale, I think Box Bar would actually be possible place for a pair to breed if they made it here.  They like cottonwood and willow riparian forests with tamarisk nearby.  There is some sort of insect that is found on tamarisk trees that the kites like to feed on.  And Box Bar has some tall tamarisks throughout it's duration.  But back to the Peregrine, it is always cool to see this incredible predator....

I did have one notable migrant, and a late one at that!  I didn't think I would have Cedar Waxwing today, but there were a few of them chiming up in the cottonwoods.  This bird is always awesome too.  Very elegant looking, one I'd like to get closer too for photographs.

I then started to see Lesser Nighthawks flying around in the sky.  Cool!  Funny thing is, it was close to being 8 A.M. in the morning and had been light for over two hours.  The Lesser Nighthawks didn't want to sleep apparently.  

I then walked along the Verde River and noticed a flock of Lesser Nighthawks feeding low over the water!  I thought it wouldn't last long, but I was wrong with my time estimate.  Here is a view of the Verde close to where I stood for the next 30 minutes.  Actually, do you see the reeds along the shore at the bottom left corner of the screen.  I was actually standing right by them.  If you look closely in the picture, you can see one of the Nighthawks.

There must have been plenty of insects, because the Nighthawks swarmed over this area.  There were probably 6-8 of them I would guess.  They would fly be me on a regular basis at very close distances.  Lesser Nighthawks aren't easy to photograph at close range, but I did try very hard!  I haven't photographed this bird much, so this was quite the treat.

Oooh, the nighthawks are so freaking cool!  Especially up close!

One of the birds that was heard the most today and seen some was the Yellow-breasted Chat.  These large and huge and giant "warblers" are usually pretty shy and skulky.  It's more like watching a thrasher forage in a cottonwood tree up high.  But this Chat was pretty cooperative.

It was a fun morning of birding at Box Bar for two hours.  This is a location I should visit more.  If I did visit more, there is no doubt in my head that I would find rarities from the east......