Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Apache County-Heavenly Highs and Lousy Lows

Hello my readers.  It has been awhile, hasn't it!  Sorry for the delay.  I've been on vacation for the last two weeks in a heavenly location in northeastern Arizona.  That location is known as the White Mountains, and it is in much of Apache County and it's range also covers parts of Navajo and Greenlee Counties.  Habitats  similar to that of the Rocky Mountains are found in this stretch of Arizona, and it is honestly my favorite area in the state.  This is where my family and I usually take our family vacations.  We have always stayed in Greer, Arizona, and that was the case again this year.  I'll talk more about this awesome place later in the post.  

In Greer this year, I was deprived of any internet signal.  I have many blogs to write, and I'm not even sure yet of how I am going to piece all of them together.  To be honest, I'm glad I didn't have signal.  Whenever I've had signal in the past, I've put it upon myself to write blogs and reports immediately after returning from the field.  On this trip, it was all about relaxing.  I'll have to think of posts to write as I go and navigate through all of the pictures that were taken on my trip.  There are many blogs and readings that I also have to catch up on other than my own blog.  But there were a few days on this trip that I can piece together right away.  That is what this post will be, and it will cover the birding of my first few days of my White Mountain vacation of 2014.

It all started on July 24th, 2014.  My family and I arrived in Greer to stay at our favorite lodge, Montgomery's Cabin.  This year, I actually had three birding friends-Gordon Karre, Chris Rohrer, and Magill Weber, coming up to bird the area and I made plans on joining them.  We had many targets we were after, and it would take some careful planning to succeed at finding them.  The four of us made plans to bird in the high coniferous and aspen forests of Apache County near Greer on July 25th, and then make a very long trek to the area of Four Corners for another local Arizona bird on the 26th.  We were all feeling very lucky about our searches before they even started.

After Magill, Chris, and Gordon arrived at their camp, which was at Rolfe C. Hoyer Campground in Greer, I went and met up with them as we had a fire and burgers.  We discussed our plans and route for our first day in the White Mountains.  For our desires as a group, we were going to go after the "White Mountain Big 5".  There are five bird species in the White Mountains that birders make trips up there for to search the extensive forests more than the other species.  These species are either found in Arizona only in the range of the White Mountains or mainly being found in the White Mountains (some are in other locations in Arizona but aren't as reliable as being in the White Mountains).  I'll through out those names right now.  The White Mountain Big Five are American Dipper, Gray Jay, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Dusky Grouse, and Pine Grosbeak.  American Dippers, American Three-toed Woodpeckers, and Dusky Grouse are certainly found elsewhere in northern Arizona outside of the White Mountains, but consistency for these species aren't as good as birding in the White Mountains for them.  The White Mountains are the southernmost range for the Gray Jay and Pine Grosbeak.  Gray Jays are found throughout the White Mountains in mixed conifer and aspen forests.  The Pine Grosbeak has been in the extremely rare category for years.  In over 14 years of birding the White Mountains on family vacations, I had never seen a Pine Grosbeak in Arizona.  I've heard many Arizona birders say that the Pine Grosbeak is their Arizona nemesis, including a few Arizona birders I ran into on this trip.  Before this trip, an eBird report recently came into our alert systems of Pine Grosbeaks being found in the Sunrise Ski Lift Area.  Would this be the year to end the Pine Grosbeak drought in Arizona?  Could the Big Five be completed in a few days worth of searching?  

Here is a Pine Grosbeak that I saw in Telluride, Colorado back in August 2012

I'm sure several birders would think that the Gray Catbird would fit into this category also.  The Gray Catbird only breeds in the White Mountains in it's limited Arizona breeding range.  Other than that, it is a rare but annual transient elsewhere in Arizona, and some of those birds are reliable to chase.  Breeding Catbirds in the White Mountains have increased drastically in recent years, to the point where it isn't even a challenge to find one anymore.  Not that that's a bad thing, I just don't think it fits into the category of these other birds that take quite the effort to find.  And of course, there are many other highlight birds to be found in the White Mountains.  Who can pass up Williamson's Sapsuckers, Clark's Nutcrackers, Pinyon Jays, Mountain Bluebirds, and sexy Northern Goshawks?  Some birds can hear conversation too, because voices carry a long ways in the forest.  Especially species with long ears.  If a species doesn't hear it's name called out, perhaps it gets jealous.  We didn't have any owls on our target list, and an owl flew in to make it's presence known.  When we figured out what owl it was, we were beyond shocked.

Photo courtesy of Chris Rohrer

I was the first to spy the owl come in and land on a tree close to were Chris, Gordon, and Magill had set up came.  From the start, we could see that it was a medium-sized owl, and we all thought it would turn out to be a Spotted Owl initially.  Gordon saw that it had long ears, and I knew it was too small to be a Great Horned Owl.  As I looked through Gordon's binoculars, I saw it clear, that it was a Long-eared Owl!  It was shocking, and Rolfe C. Hoyer Campground has never been a candidate in my mind for such a species to show up!  The owl was a lifer for Gordon and Chris, and a great year bird for Magill and I.  It was a White Mountain first for me.  Birding wise, it was an incredible start to our trip, and was just as good as any of the Big Five (well, maybe not as good as Pine Grosbeak...but close).  I wasn't prepared with a flashlight and camera, but Chris's camera had an awesome night flash to prove the owl's existence.  I had a strong feeling that the Long-eared Owl was a start to something very good for the next day to start our Big Five search.  And at 5 A.M. the next morning, we were ready to search and search for the awesome White Mountain birds.  Four serious birders look awesome in the wilderness.

Our first stop on July 25th, 2014 was in the area of the pristine Mount Baldy Wilderness.  It was here that we were going to search for two of the Big Five, the American Dipper and Gray Jay.  While Sunrise Campground is the usual bet for the Jay among birders, I have always seemed to have better luck for myself in the Mount Baldy area.  And who wouldn't love this area?

Ospreys and Great Blue Herons sure do favor the Little Colorado River along the West Baldy Trail!

Once we arrived in area, we started to search for the American Dipper first.  They are usually found in the Sheep's Crossing area in the very beginning stretches of the West Baldy Trail.  We went to a spot where I had them consistently and seemingly daily last year.  After not finding them there, we went further east along the river for a short distance.  I then saw a gray blob standing on a rock over the river, and there it was, our American Dipper.

If you find yourself searching for Dippers, it helps to walk along the river and look for white wash on the rocks in and along the river.  I'm talking about Dipper poop, or Dippy-doo.  This particular Dipper hung out near or underneath the Sheep's Crossing bridge.  It was rather skittish, which seemed odd after the Dipper I had last year was very tame acting during my entire vacation.  While we watched the Dipper, we also heard the calls of Red Crossbills very close to the bridge.  As we investigated the Crossbills, we found them close and nearly eye level while standing on the Sheep's Crossing bridge on Road 273.  What a neat bird this is.  At times the Red Crossbills would even fly under the bridge and feed on something on elevated surfaces near the bridges base.  Whatever it was, we couldn't figure it out.  But it was amazing to see these birds up so close and study both male and females.

We continued to hike up further for about two miles into the Mount Baldy Wilderness in pursuit of the Gray Jay.   After a short search, we lucked out and had three Gray Jays fly into our area and land in view.  Chris and Gordon were both standing in the right spot and got photos.  The Jays flew before I got to that good spot.  I was glad to get the Jays for my party, because it was Gordon and Chris's third life bird of the trip, and was Magill's state bird.  While I didn't photo of these Gray Jays, I did get a distant photo of it's Nutcracker of a cousin.

After landing our first two target birds, we were than after our next target bird.  After, hopefully.  Was it a longshot?  Oh yeah.  Our next stop was at the Sunrise Ski Lift area to search for the previously reported Pine Grosbeaks where a birder named Arthur Gonzalez observed them on July 5th.  Twenty days later, here we were.  Would these Pine Grosbeaks still be around?  For some odd reason, I was feeling very lucky.  But I felt awkward about feeling this way about a bird that is considered to be extremely rare in this mountain range, and yet that it is a nemesis for quite a few of Arizona's top listing birders.  Pine Grosbeaks have been thought of as being annual but extremely scarce up in the White Mountains.  When I was here last year, I actually thought to myself that the ski lifts would be a great bet for finding a Pine Grosbeak, if they were there.  After seeing a handful of these birds in Colorado, they love spruce and fir forests intertwined with open meadows.  The ski lifts at Sunrise do provide that habitat, that's for sure....

As we arrived at the Lifts (which are also a part of the Apache Indian Reservation), we were kindly let in for free by a very generous and kind women.  She labeled our ski lift tickets, "Bird Watching".  You've gotta love that!  I took out Arthur's report and read aloud the location.  We quickly found what area he had been talking about, which was barely above the lodge and children's ski lift.  There was a dirt road even going along this stretch.  We opted for the dirt road and started walking towards the trees Arthur said he had the Pine Grosbeaks in on his report.  As I was walking ahead of the others, I heard Pine Grosbeaks calling up ahead at the exact spot!!  What the heck!  We quickly made our way to the stand.  I got on a male Pine Grosbeak quickly before he took off and flew east to another stand of conifers.  He continued to call, and my party had a view of him as he flew off.  We weren't satisfied with that one view, and we waited.  There was at least a pair of Pine Grosbeaks at this location as we watched and listened to them from a distance.  After a few minutes, we got lucky as the male flew back to the stand of spruce trees that we were by.  He was very high up, but we still got diagnostic binocular views, and also some poor but diagnostic photos.

What the four of us just had was a "walk-up" state bird, of one that is considered to be so rare.  How freaking awesome is that?!  We were shocked beyond belief that it happened so quickly, and that we were already three for three on our targets, four for three really with the Long-eared Owl.  At this point, we were celebrating and were very full of it.

A female Mountain Bluebird was also there on the spot, and I couldn't pass up this photo opportunity.  

As we were about to leave the area, I got lucky again and ran into some very good friends of mine from my old church who I haven't seen in years.  Finding rare birds and good friends I haven't seen in a long time in years was a great combination.  It was great seeing Rusty, Dorene, Katrina, and Brian!

After the awesome events that took place at Sunrise Ski Area, we went further north to the Green's Peak area, to search for our fourth target of the day, the Dusky Grouse.  If you haven't been to Green's Peak, the views of the area are outstanding from the Peak's summit.  

Dusky Grouse are very hard to find.  And they were on this day.  We didn't find any.  Gordon and I did catch a glimpse of a Wild Turkey running through the forest, but no Grouse as Magill and Chris ate lunch back at the parking spot.  The area did have singing Vesper Sparrows though, a song that is very awesome to hear.

At the point where Green's Peak starts to climb up, Gordon explained to us that it was where he saw his first ever Red Crossbill.  As we looked up, the Red Crossbill was still sitting right there.  It hadn't moved since when Gordon first saw it several years ago!!!!  

After being handed our first strike out, we decided to head into Greer to try for our fifth and final target, the American Three-toed Woodpecker.  Along the way, we stopped and made a video (please watch) for a movie I am making with my birding friends, which will be called "Birding Stereotypes".  The old Dusky Grouse didn't phase us at all.  We started to search for the Three-toed Woodpecker at the Butler Canyon Nature Trail, where I had success with the species many times last year.  The woodpecker wasn't revealing itself right away, which is common.  But a few recently fledged Northern Pygmy-Owls decided to show themselves.  I am familiar with the call note of the young Pygmy-Owl, which sounds similar to that of a chirping insect.  We walked over to the sound, and found one of the young owls!

The sight of the young owl was amazing, and while Chris and Magill hiked further down the trail, Gordon and I spent more time with the owls.  One of them went after an insect on the ground, caught the insect, and then devoured it's prey right in front of us.  The Northern Pygmy-Owl is one that is fearless, and it is certainly fearless when it comes to people like us walking up to it and taking it's picture.  It was very fun to observe this small but fierce owl.

After walking the Butler Trail and going further down the road, we got our American Three-toed Woodpecker, which was Magill's state bird.  We didn't see it, but we heard it's call notes and distinctive drumming.

As we drove home, we came across several dozen Violet-green Swallows seemingly "dust bathing" in the road, which was a new behavior I haven't observed yet in swallows.  In the middle of the road too, odd....

We had an excellent first day of birding, which resulted in 4 out of our 5 targets being seen.  Wow, what a day!

Day Two.  Day Two.  Day Two was at first thought to be as a great one.  But it is the reason for the latter two words in the post's title-Lousy Lows.  Our plan was to drive up to the Four Corners area to look for another new state bird in the town of Teec Nos Pos, the Black-billed Magpie.  While we thought the Four Corners was a three hour drive, it was over five hours one way.  And on top of that, the Black-billed Magpie was a bust.  Teec Nos Pos was awful, ugly, and kinda freaky.  I didn't want to include any pictures of it on here.  Heck, I didn't even take any pictures while we were there.  We spent three hours searching for that Magpie.  While Greer isn't far from the southern tip of Apache County, we came close to driving Apache County from it's entire duration in length from south to north and then north to south.  Gosh, what a big county Apache is.  Day One was heavenly, and Day Two was lowly and lousy.  Despite the fact we missed the bird, the trip still did end up being fun.  We had great conversation and made more videos for Birding Stereotypes.  And Chris was able to make the Black-billed Magpie into a complete joke by an epic rant, which Gordon, Magill, and I were laughing so hard at that we couldn't breathe.

The birding wasn't completely absent from the day though.  On the way back, we stopped at Ganado Lake.  This location has the highest species list out of single location in Apache County on eBird.  As we got to the lake, we did see that it's edges and waters were very birdy.  

Several neat shorebirds were around.  One of them was this breeding plumaged Greater Yellowlegs.  Certainly a nice looking bird.

We also added a few Solitary Sandpipers to our list.  These sandpipers were very close to us, which was awesome.  This is one we don't get to see very often.

And how about the two together!

Several very spotted Spotted Sandpipers were around too, which gave us a good shorebird combination.

At Ganado Lake, we also enjoyed seeing families of Eared Grebes.  These Grebes were fun to watch, as some of the young birds were riding on their mother's back.  While they were very distant, I thought I would snap several memory shots.  Also present at the lake were colonies of Gunnison Prairie Dogs.

After Ganado we headed back for Greer, and we arrived back after 8 P.M.  It was a great two days of birding with awesome people.  Thanks Gordon, Magill, and Chris!

Apache County is a wonderful place to bird.  In two days, we saw a huge stretch of this huge county.  We experienced the highs and lows of birding.  We hit a grand slam and came up hit-less on a ten hour (9 inning) drive.  This is what birding is all about.  And it is one of the reasons I love birding.  Maybe I'll have another shot at the Magpie again someday, but I don't care to drive to Teec Nos Pos anytime soon.  If I go to Colorado again, maybe that'll be my excuse.  But we got the Pine Grosbeak, one that is a lot harder than the Magpie.  

Stay tuned for many more White Mountains posts from my trip, because I have many more coming!


  1. Wow, two owl species (and very cool owls at that) and 4 for 5 on some tough birds! Nice work! Too bad the second day didn't go like you wanted it to, but you must have had still had some birding euphoria from the previous day to carry you through.

    Great tip on finding the American Dipper -- I'll keep an eye out for dippy doo if I'm in their habitats.

    Pine Grosbeaks are fun birds. I grew up in nothern MN and we'd have them as thick as flies on our feeders in the winter. I took them for granted then because I wasn't a birder and now I don't have them where I live.

  2. Thanks Josh!

    I think I'll get that goofy Magpie in Arizona someday. It was a great two days though!

    If you find the dippy doo, that should lead you to the Dipper anytime. It worked for me.

    Pine Grosbeaks are awesome, I think it would be great to have them as a yard bird up that far north. I think we all have those neat sightings before we were birders and realize...oh crap!

  3. Great post and I cannot imagine how much more you have in store. Will really enjoy reading them all. You got some awesome photos as well!

    1. Thanks Gordon, it was an awesome day. Thanks for a great day of birding, we really kicked butt out there!

  4. This was great. Loved the pics and story to go with it. It's funny how the 3 of us can write about the trip in different ways.....awesome! After such an amazing day of birds, the next day was just fun to bird as a team. I'm still thinking about it and I wouldn't have changed a thing. I really really liked Ganado Lake.....now that I know those places are there and I pass them by.....I'll be checking them out. Look forward to the rest of your trip summaries. All my best.

    1. Thanks Chris, I'm glad you loved the pics and story. The three of us really did write about it in different ways, which is fun to read. I don't think I would've changed a thing either. Birding at Ganado Lake was awesome, and it was great to see that part of Apache County and Arizona.