Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Rad and Bad Birds of Butler Canyon

During the last two vacations to Greer in Arizona's lush White Mountains, I have commonly made visits to the Butler Canyon Nature Trail in Greer.  This trail is convenient, birdy, and easy to hike.  A variety of birds may be seen, although it is most famous for it's woodpeckers.  One may find up to six woodpecker species here on any given summer day, not bad for a single Arizona location.  The Butler Canyon Nature Trail also has birds that are noisy, ferocious, and quite obnoxious.  Some of these birds are rad, and some of them are bad.  In the bad category, they may be a cool kind of bad or they may be the scary kind of bad.  But most of the birds along the Butler are rad.  Come along on the hike to see some of these birds.

The Butler Canyon Nature Trail has an interpretive system, marked with numbers to assist those who are wanting to learn about nature.  Books are available (at least they used to be, I might have taken the last one) at the Butler Canyon Trailhead.  They would correspond with the trail numbers to show hikers and folks what they were looking at, along with a description of each number.  These numbers (over 20 in all) are stretched out throughout this trail.  Trail marker # 21 had to be the best.  It read, "Red-naped Sapsucker spot-the Red-naped Sapsucker will visit this marker very often".  I thought that was super strange.  As I approached the 21st Butler, they weren't even kidding at all.

Neat bird, huh?  This is an adult female Red-naped Sapsucker.  Her throat isn't as fully red as a male's would be, but she is still a striking bird.  She let me get very close to her for some awesome views.

As I was observing the Red-naped Sapsucker on the 21st Butler marker, I saw a male Williamson's Sapsucker fly in.  The Williamson's turned around as I got my binoculars on him, and he proved to be a juvenile as his white throat said it all.  I was hoping for a yellow-bellied and red-throated male.  But any Williamson's Sapsucker will do.

The Williamson's Sapsucker is one of my favorite birds.  If you remember my White Mountain trip from last year, I spent most of my time searching for and photographing Williamson's Sapsuckers.  I studied all about their history, varied plumages, and more.  It's often fun to remember that time by reading about it in this past post, which is all about the Williamson's Sapsucker.  During this trip, I walked through appropriate Williamson's Sapsucker habitat often, and didn't see many at all.  Butler was dynamite for this bird last year, but this year, not so much at all.  In fact, I only saw one nice adult male Williamson's Sapsucker during this entire trip.  Was my mind elsewhere or was I just having bad luck with them?  Here is the back of a young female Williamson's Sapsucker.  Literally and basically, the two sexes look more like separate species.

Walking further down the Trail, I disposed of my invisible trail map and trail descriptions to clear up space.  I stumbled upon North America's smallest and appropriately named Downy Woodpecker.  Downy Woodpeckers are rather scarce and uncommon in the White Mountains during the summer, but with effort, they can usually be found.  They like areas where there are deciduous trees mixed in with different conifers.  The Butler Trial has been a reliable place for me to find this small bird.

The devastating 2011 Wallow Fire was a horrific wildfire that burned over 500,000 acres of forest in the White Mountains.  Two senseless morons started the fire, and much of the White Mountains has burned.  Thus, it resulted in the worst wildfire in the history of Arizona.  Despite the wildfire, the White Mountain region is still a very beautiful place, and it is still a very birdy place.  Instead of looking at negatives, I like to look a positives too.  There are places that the Wallow Fire did touch the Butler Canyon Nature Trail in several key spots.  It's sad, but it has also made the trail a very good location to view the American Three-toed Woodpecker.  This woodpecker may be found along Butler often by listening for it's tapping a knock-on-wood drumming.  During one of my hikes on Butler, this Three-toed Woodpecker was almost trailside.

Visually, the best way to know you have a Three-toed Woodpecker is to look at the flanks of the bird, which are noticeably barred.  This is the most reliable field mark.  The similar Hairy Woodpecker will have clean white flanks, clean white flanks that really contrast with a black back and overall black appearance.  Three-toed Woodpeckers have yellow on their heads, which some young Hairy Woodpeckers may even show.  If you have baring on the flanks, then you are good to go.  By looking at the next picture, can you see all the bark the American Three-toed Woodpecker has pecked off of this tall ponderosa pine?  It is incredible to watch them forage and "bark flake" as they pursue their food sources of sap and insects.

There were also plenty of Northern Flickers and Hairy Woodpeckers present on the trail, but I didn't really think to get a photo of them.  Six woodpeckers though on one trail in a short duration, cool!  For a quick scenic memento, here is a nice scene shot of took of the surrounding area when I was hiking on the Butler Canyon Nature Trail.  What a neat place, I sure have been lucky to have been able to spend so much time in this area of the White Mountains.

The trail is home to many neat (or rad) songbirds.  White photographing the Red-naped Sapsucker at Butler 21, it was by a small spring and watery area along Butler Creek.  There was a high amount of bird activity to be found at the spot.  One of the visitors was this Cordilleran Flycatcher.  Because of the buffy tones on this flycatcher's wingbars, this is a young Cordilleran Flycatcher.

The trail also goes through plenty of stands of open ponderosa pine habitat.  This is the preferred habitat of many common forest species, including the beautiful Western Bluebird.  I could never get sick of seeing this small thrush, and luckily for me, they were everywhere in the White Mountains.

While hiking on the trail, I had an experience that made me feel like I was in the middle of the classic game, Angry Birds.  I experienced "The Mob".  For those of you who aren't familiar with "The Mob", the Mob is a scene in birding where a predatory bird, snake, or even mammal may be harassed and screamed at by a bunch of birds.  Corvids (Jays, Crows) are often quick to respond to such events, as are smaller birds like Chickadees, Warblers, Tits, and more.  As I was reaching the end of my hike, I saw a chubby and very large brown bird fly into the forest.  By the birds shape and size, I figured it was a Great Horned Owl.  I could tell that the large bird wasn't going far, and once it landed, numerous birds of three different corvids came in kicking-and-screaming.  Flocks of American Crows flew in.  Stellar's Jays also came in.  A single Clark's Nutcracker also came in.  The smaller birds in the forest didn't seem to care, they must have decided to let the corvid trio handle the bird.  I figured it was a Great Horned Owl, one of the scariest villains around for any smaller to medium-sized bird or mammal.  As I walked closer, I could see the many corvids, kicking and screaming.

 As I came in, I could see the brown blob, and the American Crows surrounded it, hoping it would fly far away.  If I was a smaller bird, I'm sure I wouldn't want it around either.  If I was the owl, gosh, these crows are probably annoying beyond all reason.  I felt annoyed just by watching the sequence.

It was a Great Horned Owl, who look pretty distinctive when in flight.  The crows really irritated the owl a few times, and they managed to chase it out of a tree once before giving up.  The Great Horned Owl even called in flight several times, a full "hoo-hoo-hoo".  It must be annoying to have three corvids screaming in your ear if you put yourself in the owl's talons.

The Great Horned Owl, is the most widespread and common owl in North America, as well as Arizona.  I've seen many Great Horned Owls, but I rarely have a sighting without stopping, looking, and photographing.  This neat raptor has a hard time hiding itself during the day due to it's large size.  Hey, we all need a place to rest don't we!  The Corvids were an example of bad birds in an annoying way while the owl was more of a rad kind've bad.

Owls are awesome!  To trace back a little in the date and owl size, let's go back to earlier in my trip when my friends and I found three recently fledged Northern Pygmy-Owls along Butler while looking for the Three-toed Woodpecker.  I didn't post very many photos of the bird on the trip's first post, so I am going to conclude this post with a few more of them.  While the Great Horned Owl is the size of a large buteo such as a Red-tailed or Ferruginous Hawk, the Northern Pygmy-Owl isn't much larger than the average sparrow.   It's crazy how a bird family can be so diverse in size.  The Pygmy-Owl is always a treat to observe, and it's great to know that they have bred in the Butler Canyon vicinity.  On the third picture down below, you can see that the owl has an insect in it's talons, one it pursued on the forest floor!

The Butler Canyon Nature Trail is an awesome place to walk around and bird.  With it's numerous woodpeckers, songbirds, and owls, the Butler Canyon Nature Trail is one I hope to continue to visit every year.  It's fun when you can see birds of the rad and the bad!


  1. It's amazing how you speak Northern Pygmy Owl:) Great sightings! And like you, I love owls for their epic awesomeness.

    1. Thanks Chris, I guess the gift has just come naturally! I don't think I have that gift with any other species, ha ha! Owls are hard to beat, that's for sure.

  2. You and those NPOWs man!
    Absolutely wonderful shots Tommy, and great inclusion of all the Woodpeckers. I was very disappointed not to make it up this summer, the White Mountains are just about the best in Arizona.

    1. Thanks Laurence! Hopefully you'll get another chance to go up there soon. The Whites are by far my favorite place in Arizona, they are hard to beat. I think the NPOW might be my lucky bird.

  3. Another great post and the GHOW photos with the corvids is really special.

    1. Thanks Gordon! The Owl and corvids were quite fun to watch as they stared each other down.