Tuesday, August 19, 2014

White Mountain Trip 2014: The Big Concluding Expedition

On August 3rd, 2014, my family was starting to pack up and start to head homeward from the cabin that we were renting and staying at for our vacation in Greer, Arizona.  I couldn't believe that our family vacation was already over.  It went by fast, like it usually does.  But when times are great and fun, fast timing is always part of it.  I didn't want to leave Greer, but I was preparing myself to face the hot temperatures that were awaiting us in Phoenix.  My job at work was going to be around the corner shortly.  Yes, I from the epic trip to the White Mountains I was well fed, but the Phoenix baggage I was already beginning to dread.  I was happy with my vacation, but I felt like there was something more that needed to come out of the birding aspect of it.  I felt like there was something I needed to discover, and I felt like I needed more time in the White Mountains and to myself for a few days.  When I go on vacations, I usually ask for a day off or two beyond what our cabin staying time is.  By doing this I can relax for an extra day after we arrive back home in the heat hole.  This year, I was aware of the fact that I had the 4th and 5th of August scheduled off of work after I asked off through the 4th.  It worked out that my boss gave me an extra day before being scheduled five straight to work the schedule out better.  So I was pondering staying in Greer for two extra days and having more time for birding expeditions.  I was going back-and-fourth on what I was going to do.  One minute, I'm staying.  Next minute, I'm going home.  I decided to wait until our last day of family vacation to decide.  But on that last day, I thought, "How could I resist this!".

On July 31st, my parents and I completed the entire expedition of the Mount Baldy Wilderness Area.  On that day, I found 4-5 Pine Grosbeaks, and I felt like there was something I needed to investigate further into that situation.  And there were two options that were going to take place.  Either one, I extend my trip and spend one last full day of Monday, August 4th of going up into the Baldy Wilderness again, or two, head back to Phoenix with my family.  It all came down to one decision, and I had to make one.  Gosh, I hate decisions sometimes, and this was: The Decision, August 3rd, 2014.  Shut up, Tommy, your not LeBron.  As I was thinking, I was reminded how this vacation was a lot about me having experiences that I usually haven't had much of.  The Greer vacation of 2014 gave me a lot of cool things, and took me off of my usual beaten path.  I hung out with my family a lot more on this vacation than I usually do and played games of Sorry every night.  Every night we had epic meals.  I drove to the Four Corners with my birding friends.  I found Pine Grosbeaks.  I heard Gray Wolves howling in the forest around me.  I was stopped by Indian Law Enforcement and was let off the hook.  I birded Greenlee County for the first time.  I was sitting up late one night and I wasn't tired and was browsing through the cable TV network, and I watched Titanic (Don't laugh-and plus, Kate Winslet is freaking hot), I haven't seen that movie in ten years.  I found the White Mountain "Big Five Birds".  I heard a Northern Saw-whet Owl calling outside my window.  I several hundred pictures of my sister attempting to jump airborne across the "Little" Colorado River (She never made it across).  The trip had many, many highlights, and I felt like I needed another "off my beaten vacation path" scenario to add to my list that would say, "I stayed in Greer for two extra days".  I went down to the Lazy Trout Motels in Greer and consulted the owners about availability.  I liked what I heard.  Minutes later, I made up my mind and said, "Hey guys, I'm staying!".  My decision was an awesome one, and I was going to have the remainder of Sunday, August 3rd, all of Monday, August 4th, and some of Tuesday, August 5th, before heading back to Phoenix.  I had nearly two more days of being in Greer, birding, and a peaceful vacation left.  Truth be told, I desperately needed it.  I got a nice room at the Lazy Trout Hotels for two nights and 140 dollars and I enjoyed eating and birding around Greer and some other locations during my stay.  One of the keys to my decision of staying up in Greer and spending a lot more money did weigh heavily on the fact that I wanted to have one more epic field expedition in the White Mountains to close out my vacation.  And that Expedition would be another trek up into the Mount Baldy Wilderness.  And I did have that strong feeling that there was something more to discover with the Pine Grosbeaks, and I was bound to explore the Mount Baldy area once more before the final buzzer.  Evening sunsets in Greer are certainly awesome, and I prepared well at getting ready for my final exploration for my vacation by getting a ton of food.

And August 4th, 2014 did come around.  I woke up, ate some cereal, got my stuff ready, and I headed back to the Mount Baldy Wilderness.  My destination was going to be a five plus mile hike one way up on the West Baldy Trail # 94.  As I got outside, most of the surroundings were covered in mist and fog.  It was very cool to see, and as I headed towards to direction of Mount Baldy on a back road from Greer, the fog didn't show any signs of letting up in the thick forest of the Baldy area.  Foggy mornings are always awesome, especially when one is north in places like this.  It gives a mysterious feel to the Expedition, which summed up what I was doing perfectly.  I was on my way to a big search that would likely require a lot of effort and determination on my part, and I entered the fog.  

The birding morning started off on a good note before I got to the trail head of the West Baldy Trail # 94.  As I was driving through meadows and grasslands that were intertwined with the large conifer and aspen stands, I noticed an object out in the middle of one of the grassy areas.  I thought it was a rock or stump at first, but as I got closer, I realized it was a Wild Turkey.

With the exception of a few Wild Turkey in Madera Canyon in southeastern Arizona which I am surprised aren't specimens by now, the Wild Turkey is really quite the wary creature.  They get spooked easily and don't stick around very long when it comes to human presence.  And this Wild Turkey just sat there, and was seemingly unconcerned about my presence.  A few minutes later, one and then two, three, and four Wild Turkey chicks popped up out of the grass and started to follow their mother around.  The grass was tall and thick, and really made for quite the safe feeding place for the small Wild Turkeys.

Before I knew it, I arrived at the Mount Baldy Wilderness Area.  I got everything I needed for my hike, and I started to make my way up into the gorgeous Mount Baldy Wilderness Area as I started to walk up the West Baldy Trail # 94.  As I've said before, this is my favorite location in Arizona and I think that the beauty of the Mount Baldy Wilderness is impossible to beat.  This pristine and wild wilderness is a rare sight in Arizona, there aren't too many places like it.  Vegetation wise along the West Baldy Trail consists of a mixed-conifer and aspen forest in the "lower" elevations of the trail.  This includes some very impressive large and old-growth ponderosa pine trees along with the firs and spruces.  Aspen stands are also prevalent along the first few miles of the trail.  The higher elevations of the trail are filled with spruce-fir forest that contain Englemann Spruce, corkbark fir, and subalpine fir.  And you can't ever forget the Little Colorado River flowing through this picturesque location, which makes it a perfect scenic location.  I was beyond thankful for the opportunity that I had before me of being able to hike on this amazing trail for one final morning that I didn't think that I was going to have.  As I started walking, the fog was still in midst of the area.  Gosh, it looked cool!

I then started to walk at a faster pace.  It was 6:30 A.M. in the morning, and I wanted to get up into the area where I had the Pine Grosbeaks earlier in the trip around 8 or so.  In most cases in birding, the important saying, "the earlier, the better" commonly applies to field expeditions.  On this day, it certainly applied and I wanted to get up into Pine Grosbeak country A.S.A.P.  Along the way, it was of course very birdy.  I was writing in my field notebook often, but was wasn't stopping very much either.  Red Crossbill.  Great Blue Heron.  Northern Flicker.  Steller's Jay.  Green-tailed Towhee.  Virginia's Warbler.  Lincoln's Sparrow.  Chipping Sparrow.  Mountain Chickadee.  Ruby-crowned Kinglet.  Cordilleran Flycatcher.  Pine Siskin.  Sharp-shinned Hawk.  Dark-eyed Junco.  Brown Creeper.  Clark's Nutcracker.  House Wren.  White-breasted Nuthatch.  Red-naped Sapsucker.  Common Raven.  Red-breasted Nuthatch.  Hairy Woodpecker.  Gray Jay.  American Three-toed Woodpecker.  My day was already off to a good start, and the forest birds were numerous as I climbed up into the area.  While I was trying to move rather quickly as mentioned, I did have an American Three-toed Woodpecker close to the trail.  

The American Three-toed Woodpecker is a thrilling bird to find.  It's foraging actions of "bark-flaking" are fun to watch, and it is a bird that can be challenging to find.  It is certainly an important bird to find when birding in the White Mountains, and it is of course part of the White Mountain "Big Five" that I have made up in my mind.  This picture of the woodpecker isn't worth bragging about by any means, but it does show the birds key field marks very well.  When looking at an American Three-toed Woodpecker, the best thing to look for are the barred flanks.  The similar Hairy Woodpecker has pure white flanks that really contrast with the overall black back on the rest of the bird's body.  Three-toed Woodpeckers also have white on their back that is similar to the back of a Hairy Woodpecker, but the Three-toed does show some barring in that white also.  Lastly, if the birds are calling, they are rather easy to tell apart.  Although Hairy and Three-toed Woodpeckers have call notes that are rather similar in tone, the Three-toed Woodpecker's call is a lot higher and is very discernible in the field.  The two species also forage close to each other quite often, and it is something I have observed a few times when I've been birded on this trip.  By taking a look at the pictures of this American Three-toed Woodpecker below, look at the barred flanks and the irregular barring on the white section of the bird's back.  

Because I was photographing an American Three-toed Woodpecker, that meant I had come into the deep woods along the West Baldy Trail.  I was now in pure spruce and fir forest, and I was getting closer to my desired searching spot.  The excitement was building up, and I was hoping for those fine Pine Grosbeaks more and more and more and more as I was going.  Red Crossbills were calling all along the trail, and I was starting to hear a few Gray Jays in the thick forest around me.  After four miles of hiking, I came across a point where there is a river crossing.  The crossing was wide and there have been several logs placed over the river to form a very weak crossing.  I found myself timid to utilize those logs that have been used my many for crossing.  After all, I did have expensive equipment on me that could be ruined by one misplaced footstep (Slate Creek haunting memories).  I crossed the river elsewhere and the Baldy Trail then started to climb upwards.  At this point, I was very close to the point where I had the Pine Grosbeaks on my last hike.  I was walking upward on the trail along a steep mountainside.  One side of the trail was going upward steeply while the other side was going downward steeply.  The forest was very thick here too, and there were a lot of fallen logs.  As I climbed up the trail and got closer to the spot, there were numerous Red Crossbills calling and flying around on the tall fir and spruce treetops.  This was the case on July 31st also, there were many Red Crossbills were the Pine Grosbeaks were.  The food sources were high along this stretch of the trail, as there were also plenty of perky Western Tanagers around also.  I was up in the spot now, and I was keeping a strong eye out for any larger, robin-sized birds that were finchy.  I looked and looked, and I was walking slow.  The Pine Grosbeaks are usually vocal too, but I wasn't hearing any as I was hoping for right away.  In my mind, I had it made up that I was going to search for a few hours up here.  As I was slowly walking and looking and listening, a small movement caught my eye below my own eye level less than 15 feet away.  It was a bird on a log, and I was very happy when I looked at saw the result of what it was!

"Oh, hey.  Wazzup."

It was a female Pine Grosbeak, and she was just sitting there and was curiously looking at me, with a berry in her mouth.  She then flew to a small shrub just feet away, grabbed another berry, and returned to the log.  I was blown away and was immediately snapping pictures of the Arizona rarity.  She continued to sit there looking awesome, and stuffing herself with berry juice.  My heart was racing, and I couldn't believe the sight of the Pine Grosbeak-just sitting there!  By nature, Pine Grosbeaks are rather tame acting and are unafraid of birder observers.  It's one thing reading about it, but when you see it out in the middle of the deep and wild wilderness, it is incredible.

From the photo above, one can really see some of the key field marks for identifying a female Pine Grosbeak quite well.  The black wings and white wing bars are great indicators and field marks for this species.  Also note how short and stubby the bill is here and on the next set of pictures below.  The dark eye-line is also a great field mark.  It gives the Pine Grosbeak a squinting expression.  Pine Grosbeaks are also big finches, and they are similar to an American Robin in size.  Another great field mark and one of the best is the bird's long and notched tail.  This gives the Pine Grosbeak a distinctive shape and appearance before one puts binoculars on it.  Earlier in the trip, when I found the male and female pair, the lighting was very bad on the birds.  Their silhouettes were very obvious though.  Now, for the male Pine Grosbeak, just replace the yellow on this female with a reddish-pinkish color for the male.  The female Pine Grosbeak just continued to sit there and entertain my eyes.  With a berry in her mouth and the fact she was just sitting there, she was seemingly asking me to enjoy breakfast with her.  

As I was enjoying the female Pine Grosbeak for twenty seconds or so and snapping pictures away as fast as I could, I caught more movement right behind her.  Another Pine Grosbeak, with this one looking like an apparent juvenile, stuck it's head out of the forest and joined the first one.  It gave the distinctive "wiieerrp, wiieeerrp" callnote of the species, which is quite similar sounding to the callnote of a Western Tanager.  When a Pine Grosbeak calls, it gives two quick notes together, while the Western Tanager gives one note at a time.  The call of the Pine Grosbeak is also higher than that of the Western Tanager.  I was happy to see another Grosbeak, and it came down to the log to enjoy being with the first bird.  

Another two "wiieerrp-wiieeerps" were heard, and two more juvenile/female-type Pine Grosbeaks joined the other two birds.  They were very active and were all feeding on berries.  The berry juice was all over the bill of some of the bird and on others (see photo above), the berry juice was slopped over the feathers and near the eye by the bill of the bird.  Hey, everyone is a sloppy eater when they are young, right?

I've read that adult female and juvenile birds are indistinguishable from each other in the field a lot of times.  As four Pine Grosbeaks surfaced in front of my eyes, it came to my attention that they were a family group.  I stood there in amazement as I watched my target birds, who were being very cooperative for me and my camera.  While one of the Grosbeaks, the first one I photographed, appeared to be an adult female, it is still hard to tell.  It had very crisp wingbars and seemed to be more well defined in it's other field marks than the others did.  The others gave more of a fluffy and dull impression when I was looking at them live in the field.  And then my answer was suddenly given to me, the answer of why I was having the strong feelings about extending my vacation and feeling the need to hike up into this epic Mount Baldy Wilderness again.  As I was watching the birds, one of the young Pine Grosbeaks in the group started begging.  It had it's wings spread out and was fluttering it's wings, and it was sitting there and begging for food.  The adult in the group then came up with berries and fed the young Pine Grosbeak!  While seeing a family group like this moving through the forest indicates probable breeding, seeing a young bird being fed in front of my eyes confirms breeding.  I was very happy with the result.  Although I had good views of the Pine Grosbeak family working together while the female was feeding one of her young, I wasn't able to capture it on my camera very well.  By looking at the picture below, the female is on the top and the recently fledged bird she was feeding is below.  The berry she gave her youngster is very noticeable also.

As the Pine Grosbeaks foraged, they give very quiet and high-pitched callnotes, which also closely resembled the sounds of a foraging family of Western Tanagers.  These foraging calls are different from the bird's main "wiieerp-wiieerp" callnotes that I was referring to earlier.  The foraging calls are only audible from a close distance.  While I was watching closely at the feeding activity of the birds, they slowly started to move up the steep slope above my head.  They kept going and they were then eventually out of my sight.  While I chase birds around a lot in bushwhacking and rough hiking conditions, this slope was just too steep to go up.  I felt that one slip could make me fall all the way down to the trail level.  The urge was still in me to find the birds and study their behavior, but regardless, my mission was already complete.  I had seen evidence that Pine Grosbeaks bred in the White Mountains this year, it was something to be very happy about, and it is great for the knowledge of Arizona birding.  After waiting for a few minutes, the birds didn't show up again, and I started to move down the trail slowly.  I watched the group of Pine Grosbeaks for a few minutes, but the excitement of it all and the eye-opening-heart-pumping-watch made it seem like it lasted longer for a few minutes.  I was now in a daze as I continued.  Thoughts came to my mind and I wondered 'How often to Pine Grosbeaks really breed up here in the White Mountains'.  While I didn't have the record book in my hands in the field, I knew that the records were sparse, as any Pine Grosbeak records in Arizona are in general...  

Something freaky was then on the trail when I turned a corner, and it was loud and was coming right at me.  It sounded like a helicopter that was dormant for days and then all of a sudden turned on and was ready for takeoff.  All in the matter of a second.  And it was coming right at me.  For those few seconds, I was terrified.  It actually sounded like a lot of things that could've been coming at me.  A torpedo, a bomb, a lightning struck tree that was going to land on me, death, and something that I could never prepare myself for.  As I was about to go into cardiac arrest, the sound went by me and continued up into the thick trees above my head.  I looked up, and saw that it was a large bird, and it landed in a tree close to the trail.

Although it wasn't my fate, a helicopter, a bomb, a falling tree struck by lightning, it was something I could never prepare myself for.  I almost stepped on a trail side Dusky Grouse!  The Dusky Grouse often sits motionless in the forest, and won't fly up until someone is almost on top of it.  When it bursts up into the air with in quick retreating flight, it is very loud, and it commonly scares the daylights out of people.  As I caught my breath, I was able to enjoy the hard-to-find Dusky Grouse with a laugh of relief.  The bird was more scared than I was, and it was giving it's alarm clucking calls.  I looked around for any potential young Grouse, but I wasn't able to find any.  When I've heard birds give these calls, there are usually young ones around.  Or maybe the bird and I just freaked each other out so bad on this time around.  Dusky Grouse are very big birds, and when a bird like that takes off, a potential for someone to be scared crapless is very high.

After watching the Grouse while it "perched" up high in the tree for a few minutes, I continued up the trail.  The trail continued to climb gradually but rather comfortably, it was a good workout.  I soon came upon a point where the trail curved to the west, and I found myself having awesome views of many different ridges and of Mount Baldy itself.  While I was between a quarter and a half-mile up the trail from where I found the family of Pine Grosbeaks, I was still very alert and I had my eyes wide open for more.  A Red-faced Warbler called in the nearby forest, and the beautiful song of the Hermit Thrush echoed over the mountainsides I was standing in midst of.  As I continued a little further, a robin-sized bird caught my attention below me and down a steep slope from the trail.  It was another Pine Grosbeak!

This Pine Grosbeak was moving around when I first saw it.  It then paused out of nowhere, spread it's wings out and started begging.  A second later, a female Pine Grosbeak came and fed the young bird.  The young bird then came and landed on the exposed branch as photographed above.  As I looked down the steep slope, I saw a third Pine Grosbeak in the groups.  I decided to make the steep climb down the slope in order to get possible photos of a young bird being fed.  As I made my way down the slope, the first Pine Grosbeak that I caught sight of sat there in typical Pine Grosbeak fashion and didn't move.  It was too busy having it's mouth full of seeds to really even notice anything else.  

I went behind the tree this Grosbeak was perched up in, and I then found two more Pine Grosbeaks foraging on or near the ground.  These birds photographed appear to be immature birds, they seem to lack the striking white wing bars that adult birds show.  

As I was in perfect view momentarily with the Pine Grosbeak photographed in the pictures above, it moved over a few feet and started begging for food.  There was a log in the way of the bird, and right as I was about to get ready for a picture, the adult female flew in and fed her young one.  I barely missed getting a very good shot of an adult feeding a young bird.  But I was very glad I saw what was happening!  Weirp!  Weirp!  Seconds later, the Pine Grosbeaks moved closer to together, and I saw that it was another group of four birds.  My Pine Grosbeak count was now up to eight birds in two families of four.  This location was a considerable distance away from where I had my first family group of birds.  It seems very unlikely to me that it was the same group that I first encountered.  Both groups were also traveling in completely different directions.  Before this second group of Pine Grosbeaks picked up and quickly flew further east into the forest, I was able to photograph more of one of them.

Before I get to the rest of my final expedition, I'm going to talk more about the Pine Grosbeak.  As the second group continued on their way, I was completely amazed at the sight of the birds, and knowing that they have in fact bred up in the Mount Baldy Wilderness this year.  I'm sure it happens more than birders may know it happens, but it was sure cool to discover these family groups.  Since my trip, I have talked to epic birder Troy Corman who knows all about the breeding status of birds in Arizona.  Troy was the main coordinator and author of the important book, the Arizona Breeding Bird Atlas.  The Atlas project took place and started in 1993 and was completed in 2000.  This book was written and the project was made to show the distribution and status of breeding birds during the seven year time frame in Arizona.  When I reported these Pine Grosbeaks to the Arizona Listserv, Troy responded to me and said that this species has not been found breeding in the White Mountains before or after the Atlas project.  Before the Atlas project, Pine Grosbeaks were found breeding on only a few occasions.  Troy also told me he found Pine Grosbeaks in this same area (also a group of 4) back in 1981.  With my expedition and goal being more than complete, I was very glad that I was able to find the first breeding evidence of Arizona Pine Grosbeaks since at least 1993.  The strong feeling that I had about there being something much more to the initial Pine Grosbeak observations that I did have turned out to be very true.  Based on Troy's sighting in August of 1981 and my sighting in August of 2014 of Pine Grosbeaks in relatively the same area, it makes me wonder a few things.  Are Pine Grosbeaks breeding in Arizona's White Mountains annually or erratically?  If the latter (which is most likely the case), how often is it?  Are they not being discovered more because birders aren't covering this area very much?  It is a trek up into the upper reaches of the Mount Baldy Wilderness Area, that's for sure.  If one is looking for Pine Grosbeaks, the White Mountains has two key places in my opinion that are always search worthy.  One is of course in the Mount Baldy Wilderness Area, especially further into and up the trail.  The place where I had them is good habitat at 4.5 miles up from the start of the West Baldy Trail, and good habitat continues as one hikes further up into elevation.  The Sunrise Ski Lift Area is also a very good place to look for the Pine Grosbeaks.  While we also observed the Pine Grosbeaks early in my trip behind the major buildings and lodge of the Ski Area's lower elevations, the potential looks great for the Grosbeaks in the higher peaks within the lift area.  A lift takes one to the highest peak of the area, which one has the option of hiking around on the high peaks or hiking back down through the forest.  At the Ski Lift Area's higher elevations, the habitat consists of dense spruce-fir forest with lines of open meadows in midst of the spruce-fir forest stands.  In Colorado, I observed a lot of Pine Grosbeaks, and the habitat here is very similar despite being on a much smaller scale than the majestic and extensive habitats in Colorado.  If one took ski lift rides to these peaks, I think the potential for finding more Pine Grosbeaks in this immediate area would probably be pretty good.  In the area on Mount Baldy where I observed the birds, it was a dense forest that consisted of pure spruce and fir forest.  There weren't many meadows along this stretch of the Baldy, but the habitat is obviously good if this is where Pine Grosbeaks have been observed on several occasions throughout the year.  If we go on vacation next year to the White Mountains again, I really want to climb up into the Sunrise Ski Lift Area's highest reaches to really search more for more of this species.  On the picture below, here is a good picture example of Pine Grosbeak habitat, which in Arizona it mainly consists of spruce-fir forest with some (very few) aspen in the mix (-Arizona Breeding Bird Atlas).  The Pine Grosbeaks are my best discovery so far this year, and they are probably in my top 10 for my favorite individual finds in Arizona during "my birding career".

After the second family of Pine Grosbeaks flew off, I was then on the second half of my hike, which would conclude and round out to be at least ten miles by the time I got back to my truck.  I was hoping the second half of the hike was going to be great too.  During the first half-mile of walking back, I kept a close eye out for the Grosbeaks as well as Dusky Grouse.  Both of them didn't show themselves again.  Once I crossed the river again and made my way back through the deep woods, I started to daydream of another remote but possible possibility for the White Mountains and for Arizona, the Boreal Owl.  There are places in the lower Rocky Mountains where Pine Grosbeak, Gray Jay, and Boreal Owl are found in the same places.  While Boreal Owls are found within relatively close proximity in southwestern Colorado and northwestern New Mexico, it has been pondered about there being a possibility for the species to occur in Arizona.  The White Mountains have good habitat in areas, but it would take a determined effort and commitment to find this species in the White Mountains or in the extreme part of northeastern Arizona's Chuska Mountains.  I love mysteries like this, especially if a successful discovery is made.  As I pondered this thought, I stumbled across a family of three American Three-toed Woodpeckers along the trail.  While I encountered a few birds on my up, this brought my count up to five Three-toed Woodpeckers for the hike.  It was cool seeing "numerous" numbers of this species.  Five is a good amount, a cool beans bird.

As I was slowly-but-surely making my way back, I was taking in the wonderful scenery along the West Baldy Trail, a picturesque place that is tough to surpass anywhere else in the state of Arizona.  Gosh, I was thankful I had more extended time up here.

I then had another nice surprise when I encountered this young Hermit Thrush.  Cute is not a word I like to use very much (for me to use it, it almost feels like saying the worst-of-the-worst in swear words), but it was the perfect word for this recently fledged bird.

I then heard the call that sounded very similar to that of a Northern Goshawk flying overhead.  As I looked above me, it was a Gray Jay, and it was giving the "NOGO" call in midair!  I was shocked to see it giving the call while it was in flight.  And the Gray Jay can imitate the Northern Goshawk with perfection.  The Gray Jay continued to fly over my head and across an open meadow past the Little Colorado River.  It was still in view but was distant.  The Jay continued to call and I managed to get a very distant but still identifiable picture of the bird.  

As I photographed the Gray Jay, something awesome came to my mind.  The topic was about the Big 5!!  During this hike, I realized I had four out of the five:  Pine Grosbeak, Dusky Grouse, Three-toed Woodpecker, and Gray Jay.  And all four so far had been photographed.  The only bird I needed now was the American Dipper.  I thought it would be really cool to see all of the Big Five White Mountain birds all on one day and on one trail to finalize the last expedition of my 2014 vacation.  And with the American Dipper hanging out by the Sheep's Crossing bridge, I knew I had a good chance of seeing and photographing all five in one day on one trail!  In my mind, I thought the Sheep's Crossing American Dipper was going to be gift wrapped for me, just like it was on the first day of my trip.  Since that first day, it was reliable on many of the other days that I went to Mount Baldy.  As it was getting very close to noon-time, I was getting hungry.  But first, I went to search for the Dipper.  I walked east and west of the bridge and didn't have any luck for thirty minutes.  With a combination of hunger and some fatigue, I got frustrated and decided to take a lunch break while heading south a short distance to visit Big, Crescent, and Lee Valley Lakes.  I made up my mind I would make an attempt at the American Dipper after I took a break and drove around for awhile.  Heading out in the direction of the lake took me through many mixed conifer woodlands and more grasslands.  The scenery was beautiful along the southern stretch of Road 273 also.  Along the road, many Eastern Meadowlarks were up, perched, and singing.  

The area of Lee Valley Lake, Crescent Lake, and Big Lake were all very beautiful.  These areas are areas I neglected to explore before this last day of my trip.  I could see that the habitats and trails and campgrounds along and at these lakes have a ton of potential, and I hope to explore more of them next year.  My brother Tyler found a Sandhill Crane north of Crescent Lake along the 273 a few days before my drive out here.  Although I didn't see the bird, it was fun looking for it.  An American Badger was a very nice surprise and consolation prize to not seeing the Sandhill Crane as it crossed the road near the area I was searching.  The three lakes were very birdy, and I was just tired and not up for gearing up for another big outing.  I saw a Bald Eagle fly across Crescent Lake, and it then flew into a stand of conifers on the west side of the lake.  Bald Eagles are always exciting to see up here, and I was hoping to get a better look.  Although the bird dissapeared, one epic cloud minutes later really resembled that Bald Eagle flying across Crescent Lake.

After seeing all three lakes and after walking around the small Lee Valley Lake, I decided to head back to Mount Baldy.  It was getting close to 3 P.M., and I was really hoping to find the Dipper.  I was kept thinking of how cool it would be if I could lock up seeing and photographing the Big 5 on one day and one location on my final big outing for the vacation.  I got to Mount Baldy via Sheep's Crossing and I immediately started to look for the American Dipper under the Sheep's Crossing bridge.  Another thirty minutes went by, and I was without luck again.  It was funny in a way.  I then thought, "Sheep's Crossing isn't exactly on the Baldy Trail".  I then remembered a younger American Dipper that I observed further west who was along the West Baldy Trail once it started.  Once this came to mind, it seemed like a much better option for the sake of the day and the expedition's sake.  The location wasn't even a far walk, and when I got to it, I started looking.  In North America, the American Dipper is an awesome and epic sight.  It is uniquely the only songbird in North America that is aquatic.  High mountain and fast-flowing rivers and streams are the preferred habitat of the American Dipper.  It is usually seen bobbing on a rock or overhanging log, or it is seen swimming and making forays up and down stream.  Another useful way of looking for it is by keeping an eye out for it's droppings on rocks.  Dipper dropping is also known as "Dippy-doo".  When I got to the spot, I didn't see the American Dipper right away.  Having the feeling it was around and was very close by, I started to walk along and down river.  I was starting to see a lot of Dippy-doo as I went.  As I went further, the Dippy-doo increased and increased.  I then looked in front of me, and there in plain view was the young American Dipper to help me reach my goal of finding the White Mountain Big Five in one day and on one trail.

Young American Dippers are told apart from adults by their yellowish bills.  An adult has a dark bill.  Wherever this young Dipper perched, it seemed to perch on a nice rock or log that gave neat views of the Little Colorado River underneath.

And I also made sure to include a picture that showed the American Dipper with his awesome Dippy-doo.

The American Dipper was an awesome ending to an awesome day as well as an awesome ending to an awesome trip.  Over the years, I have taken some amazing vacations to these White Mountains in northeastern Arizona.  Out of all of them, this one undoubtedly is tops or is very near the top.  Every aspect of my vacation was fun, whether having family time or birding time.  This last day of birding and making an effort to search for some of Arizona's finest birds turned out to be one of my best outings and days in my history as a birder in Arizona.  Finding the Big Five on one specific trail in one day led to a celebration picture, because the Mount Baldy Wilderness is nothing short of spectacular. 

I hope to return to the White Mountains soon!  If not a fall trip later this year a time or two, it would be great to come back here for family vacation again next year too.  This 2014 trip will go down as a great one in the record books.  While I've had decent luck in previous years in increasing my Apache County (White Mountain's best county) list, I was able to add 9 species to that list this year to bring the overall to 172, which was more than I thought I would get.  Those nine birds were Long-eared Owl, Pine Grosbeak, Rock Pigeon (!), Magnificent Hummingbird, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Prairie Falcon, White-crowed Sparrow, Lesser Scaup, and Cassin's Kingbird.  On my last night in Greer after the big Baldy expedition, I sat on the deck of Molly Butler Lodge and pigged out to a sensational ribeye steak entree with a handful of tasty sides.  The male Magnificent Hummingbird made a visit just before it was getting dark, and it was a great thing to see before the day was completely over.  It has been fun (and tiring) catching up and writing this series of now ten posts from my White Mountain trip.  This is now the tenth and final post from the trip, and I am now finished in with my blog posts from this rewarding trip.  Until next time, I will see you later White Mountains.


  1. AWESOME post and photos!!!!!!! That photo of the PIGR (after you found them for the second time) with the seeds in its beak should be your new cover photo, it has an amazing story behind it!!! I NEED to get out there next year for sure! I am almost speechless!

    1. Thanks Caleb, it was a great day to be out and birding in the Mount Baldy Wilderness area and seeing good birds. Thanks for the picture compliments on the PIGR. I think the Spotted Owl picture that is my cover now is too hard to beat for a cover photograph for now.

      I hope you get the chance to head over to the White Mountains next year. It's a great place that doesn't even feel close to being an Arizona location.

  2. Great post, possibly someplace for me to visit in the future. Great images, great birding.

    1. Thanks for reading and stopping by Its Time To Live!

  3. Looks like an incredible trip! I feel like I was sitting in the forest with you watching those Pine Grosbeaks. I really appreciate all the time that you put into explaining how to identify species and how they differ from similar ones.

    1. Thank you Metis Birding! The Pine Grosbeaks are awesome birds! I love topics on bird identification, it was a fun thing to write :)