Thursday, August 7, 2014

Birding on the Navajo County side of the White Mountains

Navajo County is a county that I haven't birded much of during my time as a birder so far.  My list for the county is just under 100, which also means that I've at least taken a couple of hikes here.  Well, maybe more than that.  My family and I have camped out at Fool Hollow Lake State Park on two different occasions and I have also taken a few other separate trips to the park.  My list from Fool Hollow Lake is "decent" and makes up for most of my Navajo County list.  Some of the northwestern side of the White Mountains are found in Navajo County in fun cities called Show Low and Pinetop-Lakeside.  These cities are about 45 minutes to an hour west of Greer, and similar habitat is nearby too.  This makes for great birding opportunities also, although it is more crowded than the Greer atmosphere.  When I do bird this west side of the White Mountains, I usually go to Fool Hollow Lake.  But this time, on July 30th, 2014, I went to a different spot, which is called Billy Creek.

Billy Creek is certainly off of the beaten birding path, and I have never heard of it before this trip despite the fact I have been to Pinetop many times.  As you can see, Billy Creek doesn't have much of a source of water.  There were puddles in some places.  But both sides of the creek are surrounded by tall ponderosa pine and Gambel's oak forest.  It made for an excellent birding location.  When a Hermit Thrush greeted me as I arrived at the Billy Creek trailhead, I thought that it was a good start to my birding outing.

I started to get a few new birds for my small Navajo County list, that will hopefully bring my list in this County to at least 100.  I don't know how many new birds I added to this small list, I do know of at least a few so far.  And this Red-faced Warbler along Billy Creek was one of them.

Now Billly Creek doesn't really have a trail running through the creek itself, despite the fact there is a nice trail system that heads in multiple directions from the trail head at the parking area.  From the parking space at the lot, one can take trails above the Creek.  I actually had a target bird here, and a good one.  Birder George West, who summers in Pinetop, has found a family of Northern Goshawks at this location from 2009 to 2011 before their nest blew down.  While George thought they left, he recently discovered a juvenile in the area and suspected the Goshawks may have just switched locations.  Birding friend Mary Williams came up here the day before I was here, and was able to see two young Northern Goshawks.  With Mary observing the birds the day before, I felt my odds were good.  And greatly, they were good odds.  It didn't take long before I heard one of the juvenile Northern Goshawks screaming, and one of them came flying right in.  I didn't have to do any chasing or bushwhacking to see it.  And I was only 10-15 minutes into my search.  Not bad statistics for a NO GO.  

The bird flew in and I got to see it and take pictures of it.  And things did get better from here.  But first, lets go over the field marks of a juvenile Goshawk.  Obviously and first and foremost, this bird is nowhere as cool looking as an adult Northern Goshawk would be.  But because it is a Goshawk for the fact, it is cool regardless.  It does have that fierce and awesome look to it too.  Young Goshawks can be easily confused with young Cooper's Hawks or other brown toned raptors in North America.  It all comes down to shape and genus features of accipiter.  With young Northern Goshawks, they are very heavily streaked from upper breast down to the vent area.  A young Cooper's Hawk wouldn't show this much streaking.  While there is size overlap sometimes, a female juvenile Goshawk will usually stand out easily in it's large size.  Like adult Goshawks, juveniles also have a prominent supercilium or "eyebrow".  These photos show that feature.  But what really nails this sucker down as a Goshawk is by looking at it's tail.  See the tail bands?  Look how sloppy they look!  They are uneven, messy, and all over the place.  You would think they would line up at some point, but the fact is, they never do!  In other hawks of the Goshawk's genus in North America, Accipiter, the Sharp-shinned and Cooper's Hawks have tail bands that are straight and neat.  I haven't seen juvenile Goshawks up close like this before, with an extended study period.  This bird was quite vocal, and it's sibling started to be very vocal too.  Before I knew it, the sibling Northern Goshawk also flew in, and I had two young hawks to keep track off.  Both of them flew in good range over my head, something I wasn't able to capture a photo of.

During the previous day, I was hiking with my Dad and brother Tyler.  I explained to them how I don't see Northern Goshawks, my favorite bird, very often at all.  So this was a treat.  I also told them I have seen more Black Bears than Northern Goshawks, oddly.  I guess those stats show that the Northern Goshawk isn't seen very much, and that it is quite the no go.  Sometimes it seems that animals or birds overhear our talking.  As I was walking up the creek, I spooked up a foraging Black Bear.  He ran away rather quickly, and I don't have a picture to show for it.  But he was there, and it was awesome to see it.  And so the Black Bear took another tally over the Northern Goshawk, once again!  When I caught up to the hawks, they weren't very scared of me.  Sadly, the lighting wasn't the best as I got very close.  The sky had hit an overcast moment.  Ah, you gotta take what you can get a lot of the time with photos.  As with most juvenile birds, they don't spook as easily as an adult would.  These young Goshawks were honestly quite fearless.

The Black Bear ran into the same direction as to where the juvenile Northern Goshawks were flying.  I tried following the bear without success, and it's probably not a wise thing to do in the first place.  I was by myself however, and if the bear decided to do a 360 degree turn in the wrong direction, I would be in trouble.  The bear was rather small though, so he wasn't one that intimidated me by any means.  But any bear is strong for that matter.  During the last time I was able to view the young Goshawks when they were up and perched was very awesome.  The lighting improved a notch and one of the birds sat up in a very nice photogenic view.  Both birds were very vocal, and I was just hoping that one of the adults would come flying on in.  

The young Northern Goshawk isn't so fierce right now like it's parents.  In another year or so, it'll be a very mean, fierce, and determined to make it's name known wherever it decides to live.  It'll be feared by every bird and mammal in the forest that it is capable of preying on.

After the juveniles eventually started flying more and circling over the area, I lost them and wasn't able to hear them after awhile.  I think they went further north into the area.  I then spent another hour walking along Billy Creek for a possible attempt of locating one of the adult Goshawks.  George said the nest was on the south side of the creek in previous years before blowing down.  When he saw a juvenile Goshawk on the north side of the creek this year, he assumed they built their nest at a different location within the vicinity.  As I walked along the north side of the creek, I didn't find any of the adults, but I think I found the new nest they built.....

Finding the probable nest for the Goshawks concluded my time at Billy Creek.  Perhaps I will return earlier in the year next year to try and see these adult birds.   Plus, I need to visit the White Mountains at more random times of the year rather than the time frame of late July-early August.  After hiking at Billy Creek, my next stop was at the excellent Woodland Lake Park in Pinetop.  The water levels of the lake were very low and it was quite sad to look at.

Most importantly, the lake levels didn't affect the abundance of bird life that was present at Woodland Lake Park, even when it was midday.  During the stop at Billy Creek and at my stop at Woodland Lake Park, I managed to bring my Navajo County list from 93 to 100!  A singing Common Yellowthroat in the reeds along the lake gave me the hundred mark for my 11th county in Arizona, only four more counties to go before I have 100 in all of them!  Woodland Lake Park is a well known place to see the attractive Lewis's Woodpecker.  On this visit, I saw plenty of them, but only one of them was in range for a good photo.

This was the particular distance of most of the Lewis's Woodpeckers.

There were a lot of American Crows around also, and a lot of those crows were noisy juveniles.  They made quite the racket, and they wouldn't stop begging their parents for things.  

The Pinetop and Show Low area is also a great place to observe Cassin's Kingbirds.  Several of these noisy birds were around Woodland Lake Park also.  They are usually heard before they are seen, as they give their loud, two-syllable call, "Que-beer".  This individual was very cooperative and let me get in range for these photos.  

Woodland Lake Park is also home to another species I was targeting for this area, the Purple Martin.  The Purple Martin is significantly bigger than any other regularly occurring swallow in North America, and out of the regularly occurring swallows in Arizona, the Purple Martin is the one I get to see the least of.  I wanted to change that today and spend time with this awesome bird.  When I started to walk around Woodland Lake, I was hearing Purple Martins and was seeing them every now and then.  After reaching the southern limit of the lake, I heard a big flock of them consistently calling from a specific location.  I looked in the distance and could see the Purple Martins landing on and flying around several big light posts.  After walking over to the light post, I stood under the incoming Martins, and they were fun to watch!

What was so interesting about these light posts to the Purple Martins?  I don't know, don't even ask!  It was probably a good feeding or resting spot away from their cozy cavities.

I was able to see a male and female pair in cavities of one of the many tall dead snags around Woodland Lake.

After watching the Purple Martins, it was time to head back into Greer.  I consider my Navajo County mini-exploration on this outing to be success.  I found the Goshawks, I reached 100 for my Navajo County list, and I explored some of Billy Creek, which was the first time I have ever been to the location.  Billy Creek goes for a long distance, and there is a lot of room for potential beyond the limited stretch that I covered.  There is a lot more to explore in the White Mountain region of this county, and hopefully I can explore more of it in the future!


  1. Good stuff here! Great photos of the NOGO! I found Billy Creek trail in May during the NAMBC and loved it and intend to go back. Thanks for the post!

    1. Thanks Gordon! Billy Creek is awesome, maybe we can take a trip up there sometime soon or next spring. Maybe we can get some adult Goshawk sightings in, after all, I did find the nest!