Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Birding Sipe and South Fork-Two of the White Mountain's best

There are many, many, many, many, many, excellent birding locations to be found within the large range of northeastern Arizona's White Mountains.  Whenever I go on vacation here, it is easy to become overwhelmed with picking out places to go and bird on the trip.  After all, I do like to fit everything in.  Over the last two years, that has become harder and harder to do.  I don't want to spend my entire vacation birding, there are other important things.  So now, I try to cover several different areas once and go to the spots that I really like time and time again.  It's weird how things work out.  This year, I've had a lot of luck without going too far around the map.  The birding has been great and I've had my personal best for a list for Apache County while being on vacation, which has numbered over 130 species on this trip.  There were several other birds I could've gotten very easily and didn't, but it's not about the listing efforts on a trip as compared to the experiences that really make the trip.  One can see 200 species of birds on a trip and not really have a super duper highlight.  On this trip, I have had many standout highlights, which beats a knock-out bird list any day.  As I've entered in most of my sightings to eBird, I have been happy with the results.  On one of the last days of my trip, I had to run into the city of Springerville to do grocery shopping.  Before and after the groceries, I visited two birding locations, the Sipe White Mountain Wildlife Area east of Springerville before grocery shopping and then the South Fork Recreation area, which is shortly west of Springerville and shortly east of the Greer turnoff from the Route 260.  These two areas are two spots that I love to visit on every White Mountain vacation that I take.  Both of them also have a variety of different habitats and species, and they can really boost the trip list up quickly.

The above picture is from Sipe White Mountain Wildlife Area.  In the background, the tall mountain is Escudilla Mountian.  This mountain is one of the top peaks in the state of Arizona, and it was once one of the prettiest places.  Sadly, most of this spectacular mountain was charred in the 2011 Wallow Fire.  Escudilla was a place I visited several times, and every visit was great.  Arizona used to be home to the Grizzly Bear in good numbers before they were hunted, trapped, and eventually extirpated completely outside of Arizona and the southwest for that matter.  The last wild Grizzly Bear in Arizona was shot on this mountain.  Back to Sipe, a lot of Sipe's surrounding area was burned up in the fire too, but Sipe remains to be a great birding place.  In all of the White Mountains, I think the Sipe Wildlife Area is the best place to visit if one wants to have a big list and a variety of birds on a hike.  It's one of those easy places to view birds and other wildlife, and it really caters to the birders.  In Phoenix, there's Gilbert Water Ranch, in Tucson, there's Sweetwater Wetlands, in Yuma, there's Yuma East and West Wetlands, in Flagstaff, there's Kachina Wetlands, and in Prescott, there's Watson and Willow Lakes.  So here in the White Mountains, there's Sipe White Mountain Wildlife Area.  There have been times I have visited this place and have recorded about 60 species in only several hours of birding.  Sipe has a little bit of everything habitat wise.  It has riparian plants and habitats, hummingbird feeders, open meadows, hummingbird feeders, fences for birds to perch on, pinyon-juniper habitat, ponderosa pine forest, and several small lakes.  A three mile and easy hiking loop takes the birder through these habitats, where birds are easy to see and observe.  This makes Sipe a fun place for many.  When I came on my trip, I enjoyed Sipe's scenery along with some awesome monsoon clouds in the background!

After a stop at the visitor center, I began my walk and birding at Sipe by hiking on a three-mile trail that goes through the area.  Sipe stuck to it's usual ways of it having abundant birdlife.  In only 1.5 hours, I tallied 49 species, from 2 P.M. to 3:30 P.M.  This place has abundant and active birdlife even in the down parts of the day, which is quite similar to those other locations mentioned throughout Arizona.  Sipe caters to birders and makes life easy for them!  Hummingbirds were abundant at the hummingbird feeders, with there being many Rufous and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, and several Calliope Hummingbirds.  This female Broad-tailed Hummingbird was the only one that I was able to get a photograph of.

At Sipe, you may find Bullock's Orioles perched on the fence wires and up on bushes.  I had several during my walk.

This Pine Siskin favored the fence lines too.

So did the Chipping Sparrow.

So did the Say's Phoebe.

So did the young Barn Swallow.

And so was the female Tree Swallow.

Sipe had many birds in just the short while, and it was a great stop.  Most of those birds I wasn't able to photograph.  I'm sure if I was here at 7 A.M. in the morning, my count would've been 10 or more species higher.  Other highlights included numerous Lazuli Buntings in reedy areas along the creek, and a flock of Wilson's Phalaropes in Sipe's McKay Reservoir.  On my next long vacation to the White Mountains, I hope to visit Sipe at a much earlier time in the day.

Up next was the South Fork area.  It is named South Fork due to the south fork of the Little Colorado River flowing through the area.  Like Sipe, South Fork also has a diversity of habitats that include open grassland, rocky bluffs, riparian habitat along the Little Colorado River, juniper and pinyon pine woodland, ponderosa pine habitat, cottonwood riparian, and mixed conifers above the picnic area.  This is another place where one can have an amazing diversity of birds in a short while.  I got here in the evening and had close to 40 species near the end of the day and in less than two hours.  The highlight was a flyover flock of gregarious Pinyon Jays.  Pinyon Jays are always fun to see, and last year while birding at South Fork, I happened to stumble upon a flock that was actively foraging.  This time, the flock was moving on very quickly.  During this trip to Sipe, the lighting wasn't very good so my bird photos are minimal.  A migrant Willow Flycatcher was perched up high, and I also had a Sora and two Gray Catbirds along the river.  The Gray Catbird is another local breeding species in the White Mountains.  It was once very scarce and South Fork was "the place" to see it, but now the species has really spread out throughout several other areas in the White Mountains.  The Catbird isn't so hard to find anymore.  Here is a picture of the Willow Flycatcher.  Actually, nevermind, it's actually a Western Wood-Pewee.  It's a screw-up I made on here.  There never ceases to be a learning experience in birding!

There were many active birds close to and at the picnic area of South Fork, which is dominated by ponderosa pine woodland.  The Little Colorado River flows through this part also, and it is quite peaceful to listen to.  Despite there being many active birds such as a young female Williamson's Sapsucker, Bushtits, Steller's and Pinyon Jays, Clark's Nutcracker, etc., this Townsend's Solitaire was the only bird I was able to get a photograph of.  

Walking around South Fork, I looked down into a valley below and saw this female Elk.

As it was getting dark, I heard the distinctive calls of the Common Nighthawk.  Although I was hearing them, it took me awhile to actually visually see one.  Finally, I looked up and saw one flickering up high and above.  I managed to get a few poor, but most importantly, diagnostic photos of the bird.  The white bar on it's wings is lower in placement from the wingtip than a Lesser Nighthawk would be, which the Lesser's white bar is very close to the wingtip.  Here is a new bird "photographed", the Common Nighthawk!

Birding at Sipe and South Fork was a lot of fun, and I'll have to bird them more on the next trip than the one single time that I did on this trip.  As the sun was going down, the monsoon clouds were once again breathtaking, and couldn't go on without me photographing them.  Here's a good way to end this post.


  1. Awesome post and photos!!! That is a lot of birds on those wires! Nice job on photographing the nighthawk, I need to get out there one day.

    1. Thanks Caleb, the Sipe Area is a perfect place to get wire shots. The Nighthawk was long overdue for photos.

  2. Looks like another spot I would like to visit on my next trip to the White Mountains. Just being there is enjoyments enough!

    1. Thanks Gordon, the Sipe place is awesome I think you'd really like it. There are too many spots to bird up there.

  3. I enjoy learning about habitats and locations on your blog, Tommy. And the differentiating field marks between the two nighthawks is now locked in mind!

    1. Thanks Josh! Isn't it just awesome when you can go to a small area with a lot of different habitats?!

      Those Nighthawks can be pretty tricky, I haven't had a situation yet (at least that I know of) where I had Lesser and Common Nighthawks flying side-by-side.