Saturday, July 19, 2014

Birding Gila County's Pinal Mountains

Today, I birded in the Pinal Mountains in Gila County with my buddy Gordon Karre.  The Pinal Mountains are a wonderful place, and they have great high elevation forest birding.  Prior to today, I had only been to this central Arizona mountain range one other time in 2011.  It has great birding, and I was dying to get out today.  With four more days until my family vacation and a string of twelve hour work shifts remaining before that vacation day, I wanted to bird all day today in higher elevations.  And the Pinal Mountains were a good choice.  Birding with Gordon is awesome, and we combined forces to do some hardcore birding.  By the end of the long day, we tallied nearly 70 species throughout the low and high elevations of the Pinal Mountains.

Despite the fact that we did have a decent species list (with nearly half of those coming from the lower elevations of the Pinals), the birds were rather hard to photograph on this trip.  It is that time of year where parents are feeding young and are on eggs, and most bird species aren't so vocal, yet photograph-able.  We heard many birds and saw most of the species, but many of them were quick glimpses of birds that just weren't cooperative.  With the thick mixed-conifer, aspen, oak, and sycamore forests of the Pinal Mountains, birds have to be searched for carefully!

Before we reached the conifers, Gordon spied this rather weird looking Red-tailed Hawk on a rather weird looking perch, an ocotillo.

As Gordon and I climbed up into the high elevations, the Red-breasted Nuthatches were sure to sound off their trumpets.  I'm not even kidding-if you listen to this small bird, it really sounds like a small trumpet.

One of the day's exciting finds were observing several flocks of Red Crossbills in the area.  This is a bird Gordon and I don't see very often, so it was quite the treat.  The songs and calls of these odd birds were heard throughout the day in various coniferous locations throughout the area.  I wonder what TYPE of Red Crossbill this is?

We also saw plenty of the not-so-creepy Creeper, the Brown Creeper.  It's life is filled with climbing up trees, eating bugs, and then repeating the process after he climbs up to the top of tree by flying down to the bottom of the next tree.  Fun life huh?

This female Broad-tailed Hummingbird just finished eating up an insect, you can see the bug's remains drooping down from the bill.  Gordon nearly captured the bug on film too.  Broad-tailed Hummingbirds are abundant in the Pinal Mountains.

The Pinal Mountains are also home to a good number of Dusky-capped Flycatchers in the pine, oak, and sycamore forests near the Sulfide Del Rey Picnic Area.  These mountains are home to a significant number of southeastern Arizona birds for a central Arizona location.  A Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher was even found here last year and a Short-tailed Hawk was also found here.  But those both pale in comparison to the most likely but hypothetical observation that one once had historically of an ABA mega-rare Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush at the top of these mountains near Pinal Peak.  These Dusky-capped Flycatchers and others show the potential that this underbirded mountain range has.

We observed this Hairy Woodpecker feeding nestlings, which was pretty cool!

Near the top of the Pinals by Pinal Peak we visited a friendly cabin owner's yard to observe his hummingbird feeders.  Did I mention Pinal Peak is nearly eight thousand feet in elevation?  In this upper area, the forest is made up of pine, fir, and aspen and is very cool and has beautiful weather.  The hummingbird feeders are filled with hummers.  This included dozens of Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, two Rufous Hummingbirds, and a pair of Magnificent Hummingbirds.  The Magnificent Hummingbird is a favorite of mine, it was cool to see them in Central Arizona for the first time.

Male Broad-tailed Hummingbirds

Female Magnificent Hummingbird

Although the warblers weren't very viewable today, I was able to get off this picture of the awesome Red-faced Warbler!  It doesn't do the bird justice but it is always cool to see!

And then there was this one bird that Gordon and I spent a lot of time trying to photograph well.....and we couldn't.  A prized shot of this bird has to either be eye-level or above-level.  If your neither, which is most of the case, you'll end up with a picture of a bright light-orange lower mandible.  The bird has a black upper mandible, and it's awesome to capture them both.  For the most part, the Greater Pewee turned his back on us today.

While this isn't a bad shot, it is below eye-level.  This gives the Greater Pewee an light-orange billed look only.  And this bird has a black upper mandible.  There were a few times that I had opportunities for the nice and prized shot, but with loose branches nearby and sloppy Tommy D footing, the shy Greater Pewee has a lot to wimp out at.

Gordon and I also heard something strangely wrong in the Greater Pewee's famous "Jose Maria" song.  All male Greater Pewee's (Jose's) commonly announce their love for their mates (Maria's) in the song Jose-Jose-Maria.  It's a high-pitched melody, one that most birds can't handle.  Jose's Olive-sided cousin loves to sing in a high pitched voice also in regards to drinking a lot of beer, but not about his mate.  Today, two Joses in the Pinals were singing lazy, and the "Maria" in the song sounded more like "Marie".  Gordon and I were both disgusted.  After all these years, we find out that the Greater Pewee is a cheater, and has left Maria for Marie.  Who is Marie?  I'm just joking, the male Greater Pewee's probably just don't care as much as the peak of breeding season has probably passed.  Perhaps the vocal cords need a rest (were talking about two syllables instead of three), but it really sounded like he was saying Marie.  Maybe birds get laryngitis too?  The Greater Pewee also gets offended very easily, even at harmless jokes.

"Sound travels in forests, even when you think your talking quietly.  No 'killer' photos for you".  

Here is an example of where I could've had a nice shot.  All the Greater Pewee had to do, was turn around!

Or look straight down at me or tilt his head sideways...

Most of the problem is me, I sometimes can't focus right.  This shot could've been awesome.  Could have been.  Both mandibles are in view!!!  

I guess these two turned out pretty good.  And you've gotta love the Greater Pewee's rad fro.

Climbing up mountains attempting to get above or at eye-level with a Greater Pewee is a challenging and tough exercise.  It's certainly a fun bird to observe and one I don't see often.  I think I'll get that chance for that killer shot some other time I hope, at least I got to observe this bird up close for a long time.  In climbing up the mountain in pursuit of that picture, some of the views were great.  These were some of many great views of the Pinal Mountains, so here is that time to show off some of the scenery from the place I got to bird today!

The Pinal Mountains are a great birding location and is one I should visit a lot more.  Who knows what you may find up here!  Thanks Gordon for an awesome and fun day of birding!


  1. Greater Pewees are TOUGH! Great blog though and photos. The Pinals look to be pretty lush right now, and there's nothing so good for the soul--at least in the secular realm--than a long day's birding out in the thick of it!

    1. Thanks Laurence! The Pinals are awesome, and are lush. Birds were everywhere, and this is one of the slower times of the year even. It's an awesome area, I enjoyed all of it!

  2. Great post! Have to point out that photos were also a bit tough due to lighting issues with the weather being overcast in the morning and many of the birds hanging out in the shade of the trees. Still you got some great photos of some great birds. The RBNU really cooperated with us for photos! Thanks for a great day of birding!

    1. Thanks Gordon! The photos were tough at first due to overcast, luckily it was sunny later. The Nuthatch was the best bird to be photographed that day for sure. If I wasn't so lame, I'd have great Greater Pewee shots too.

      It was awesome birding with you Gordon, thank you too for a great day!

  3. Even though you didn't get the shot you wanted of the Greater Pewee, you got some great looks and saw some amazing birds! I'd love to see a red-faced Warbler, and I have yet to see a Red Crossbill. Good birding!

    1. Thanks Josh!

      I think the Pewee will offer a better shot soon. You will have good memory when you first see a Red-faced Warbler and Red Crossbill. Both are very neat birds. I'll never forget when I saw my first Red-faced Warbler.