Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A Fall Birding Trip to Apache County, Arizona

Hi Everyone,

This past weekend, Gordon Karre and I explored the White Mountain region of Apache County.  We had three days worth of birding that lasted from September 13 through September 15th, 2014.  Our goal for the trip was to search for migrants in bodies of water as well as riparian areas.  We made many stops, and found a lot of birds during the trip.  Another goal was to increase our Apache County lists by exploring this expansive area.  It was a special trip for me, because I've always wanted to bird in the White Mountains in a time frame outside of July/early August, which I've done a lot of in 13 summers since 2000.  During this trip, birds were plentiful, and we had Wilson's and MacGillivray's Warblers literally everywhere.  While we wanted to explore further north into Apache County, 2.5 days wasn't enough time to cover everything, but we were able to cover a lot of ground in the White Mountains region itself.

The White Mountain Region in Apache County is epic.  This is my good friend Gordon Karre looking for birds at the Sipe White Mountain Wildlife Area.  We took this trip in order to search for and find new birds for our Apache County list.  As my birding roots got started in Apache County, this was my first time ever of being able to bird it in another season outside of summer.  It was a huge deal for me!

On Saturday, September 13th, our first stop of the day was at the Sipe White Mountain Wildlife Area.  This location has always proven to be dynamite for seeing a variety of different birds whenever I have given it a visit.  With fall migration in force, we were eager to see what Sipe had to offer.  And as expected, birds were everywhere and we tallied 63 species in just over three hours.  We hiked the easy difficulty three mile Rudd Creek Loop Trail, which goes out to McKay Reservoir.  The small lake was disappointingly dry, and had it had water, we probably would've had shorebirds and waterfowl to look at also.   Other than that, the birding was a blast.  The best find we had at Sipe were two GRASSHOPPER SPARROWS that were found well apart from one another.  We were surprised to find them here, as it wasn't a species that we were expecting to observe.  Abundant flocks of PINYON JAYS were also enjoyable to see and they seemed to be literally everywhere throughout Sipe.  Out of the 63 species, other highlights included NORTHERN HARRIER, 5 COOPER'S HAWKS, SORA, female WILLIAMSON'S SAPSUCKER, 4 RED-NAPED SAPSUCKERS, a CLARK'S NUTCRACKER, 2 BANK SWALLOWS, a RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH by the visitor center in the many deciduous trees, NASHVILLE, MACGILLIVRAY'S, TOWNSEND'S, and WILSON'S WARBLERS; a big number of at least 25 GREEN-TAILED TOWHEES, BREWER'S and LARK SPARROWS, both MEADOWLARKS, and 2 YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRDS.  Sipe was very fun to visit, and it has a lot of awesome potential.

Grasshopper Sparrow!  We weren't expecting this one at all.  But I'm sure they are probably annual migrants through the White Mountains, especially with all of the grassy areas the region has to offer.

Pinyon Jays were everywhere at Sipe!

The Sipe Pinyon Jays seemed to come one after the other!

Male Brewer's Blackbird

Male Mountain Bluebird

Brewer's Sparrow, one of our many Apache County lifers.  An "Apacher"

Sipe White Mountain Wildlife Area

We followed Sipe up with a visit to Becker Lake just north of Springerville.  A 50 minute visit produced a variety of species that included AMERICAN WIGEON, CINNAMON TEAL, NORTHERN SHOVELER, EARED GREBE, WHITE-FACED IBIS, NORTHERN HARRIER, LOGGERHEAD SHRIKE, MARSH WREN, and a flock of YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRDS.

Spotted Sandpiper snacking along the shore of Becker.

Loggerhead Shrike

Becker Lake

The next stop was at Wenima Wildlife Area, which is also close to Springerville and is a few miles northeast of Becker Lake.  There have been some very interesting birds here in the past (Groove-billed Ani, Thick-billed Kingbird to name a few), and we were hoping to find an interesting migrant of our own.  We didn't find any migrant surprises, but it was nice to see COOPER'S, SHARP-SHINNED, and a young SWAINSON'S HAWK.  Our best songbird migrant was a WILLOW FLYCATCHER.

Wenima Wildlife Area

Swainson's Hawk

From Wenima, we proceeded further north to Lyman Lake State Park, where we birded at for nearly four hours.  A lot of neat highlights and much needed exploring came from Lyman Lake.  The best highlight at Lyman Lake came when we found a juvenile SABINE'S GULL floating out on the lake.  We had it scoped and in view for a few minutes before a high-speed boat came down the lake and in the direction of the gull.  Luckily, this caused the gull to kick up and take flight, and we were treated to seeing it's distinctive wing pattern, which birders commonly refer to as a "flying field mark".  This was our best find of the trip and it was Gordon's life bird.  Another good highlight at Lyman Lake was finding a juvenile SANDERLING on the southeast corner of the lake., another nice surprise we weren't expecting.  The Sanderling eventually covered a lot of Lyman Lake just like we did, and popped up in other sections that we birded.  There were several other neat shorebirds around that included three SEMIPALMATED PLOVERS, AMERICAN AVOCET, 7 BAIRD'S SANDPIPERS, a flock of 9 WESTERN SANDPIPERS, and very high numbers of SPOTTED SANDPIPERS.  The highlights got better as 6-7 BLACK TERNS flew over the waters together and a single CASPIAN TERN made a visit as it flew from the west side of the lake to the east side of the lake.  The lake also held high numbers of NORTHERN SHOVELERS and NORTHERN PINTAILS, as well as 3 AMERICAN WHITE PELICANS and a single SNOWY EGRET.

To be honest, we at first started to think that Lyman Lake State Park was going to be a bust.  It seemed dead when we got there.  But at the east side of the lake, we found a very nice sized clump of birds.

The Sanderling was quite the shocker!  This is a juvenile bird, and Gordon and I both saw it at the same time.  It proved to be cooperative and we were both able to get pictures of this bird.  Sanderling is a rare but annual transient in Arizona.  I've seen them in Maricopa County probably 4-5 times, and this is obviously an Apache County first for me.  And more importantly, this was Gordon's state bird.

Sabine's Gull.  The second I saw this bird on the water I knew it was something good.  It was also Gordon's life bird.  This is a juvenile Sabine's Gull, the "brown one".

The Sabine's Gull is one of the most distinctive gulls in North America in all plumages, especially when it takes flight.  This pattern is seen in all ages and sexes on the Sabine's Gull.  Birders often refer to this gull as a "flying field mark".

Semipalmated Plover

Semipalmated Plover-the mini shorebird

2 of the 6 Black Terns

Lyman Lake

After Lyman Lake, we headed south towards Alpine, where we got hit hard by rain in places during the last hour of daylight.  We decided to scan Luna Lake after Nelson Reservoir was pouring rain and wasn't showing signs of letting up.  As usual, Luna Lake had high numbers of expected waterfowl and grebes, and we spied highlights of PEREGRINE FALCON and two calling SORAS.  Luna Lake turned out to be our last stop for the first day, which resulted in 108 species between the stops.

Luna Lake

On Sunday, September 14th, we had another early start and headed from our staying place in Greer out to the Sunrise area before heading east to South Fork.  We took this route for an hour to observe the many Elk in the area, which are in the rut.  At one point, we stopped at one place in Sunrise where we had great views of the open grassland and a few herds of Elk out in them.  There were several bulls among them with huge racks.  We had great scope views and bugling from the bulls were coming in five different directions.  It was an amazing experience to watch and listen to, one I haven't enjoyed in a long time, and one of the most amazing sounds of the wilderness.  If one doesn't enjoy listening to Elk bugle and watch them at this time of year, then they really don't like nature!  As we were in the process of Elk searching, we did have a NORTHERN GOSHAWK briefly perched up in a tall tree by the Sunrise Lodge.  We didn't think it was going to be a Goshawk at first, so we opened up the car doors quickly to get out our binoculars, which spooked the bird.  Cool to see, but a perched view would've been awesome.

Elk herd.  Look at the Elk on the right, a huge bull.  The sounds of Elk bugles were coming from everywhere.

One large bull wandered in from the other direction, but no fights broke loose while we were watching.

We then headed east to the South Fork of the Little Colorado River, which is one of the best birding locations in the White Mountains.  We covered the river area by the bridge as well as the day use area up further by the trailhead and day use area.  There were very high numbers of migrants of several species such as WILSON'S and MACGILLIVRAY'S WARBLERS and female WESTERN TANAGERS.  1-2 GRAY CATBIRD(S) vocalized along the river.  We had a good woodpecker fix as we had visuals of both WILLIAMSON'S and RED-NAPED SAPSUCKERS as well as a female DOWNY WOODPECKER that Gordon spied while we were driving over the river bridge.  There were also a few WHITE-THROATED SWIFTS flying over the area, HAMMOND'S and WILLOW FLYCATCHERS, and flocks of PINYON JAYS.  A CLARK'S NUTCRACKER was heard calling above the day use area.  39 species total at South Fork, a place that would be fun to bird on a regular basis!

White-tailed Deer

South Fork of the Little Colorado River

Willow Flycatcher

Our next stop was at the Grasslands Wildlife Area.  This area is another fun one to explore and bird.  For those who don't know, Long-billed Curlew and Mountain Plover have been found breeding here.  Although they are rare here at the same time, it is good to keep an eye out for them.  Grasslands Wildlife Area is of course dominated by grasslands, but a 2.6 mile loop trail through the area takes one through the area through pinyon-juniper as well as a few ponds and three different stands of cottonwoods.  Throughout the year, the cottonwoods and ponds are probably very good for migrants.  While we didn't find anything too noteworthy at the cottonwood stands and ponds themselves other than what we had observed already, finding a BURROWING OWL in it's natural habitat along one of the dirt roads in the area was very rewarding.  Grasslands Wildlife Area has a section where Burrowing Owl homes have been made, and this sighting was well away from that.  29 species were recorded here, and this is another great place to observe PINYON JAYS, as we had another big flock in this area also.

Apache County Burrowing Owl!

It's awesome to see the Burrowing Owl in it's natural habitat!

We then traced our route back over to the Sunrise Area and then south from Sunrise to explore Sunrise, Crescent, Big, and Lee Valley Lakes.  Sunrise Lake had an abundance of water birds from the central to east part of the reservoir.  We didn't have anything noteworthy here other than a leucistic CANADA GOOSE.  This lake has a lot of potential and birds come and go from previous reports I've read.  We then headed down to Crescent Lake.  Crescent Lake had a few highlights that consisted of our first AMERICAN PIPITS of the fall, PRAIRIE FALCON hunting along the shoreline, NORTHERN HARRIER, a WHITE-FACED IBIS, and a YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD.

Crescent Lake

Big Lake didn't have a lot of birds from what we were able to see on the lake other than a few COMMON MERGANSERS, but we did come up with a SWAINSON'S HAWK and a flock of 21 WHITE-FACED IBIS feeding in a marshy area.

Mountain Bluebird and Wolf facts

Mountain Bluebird at Big Lake

Big Lake

Our final stop in this area was at Lee Valley Lake.  The lake held a female BUFFLEHEAD and a short walk along the southeastern perimeter of the lake produced two GRAY JAYS.  A variety of forest birds were seen and heard in the adjacent forest.

We then spent the rest of the day in the Greer area birding for about four hours.  The Greer Lakes are always fun to bird, and a quick 45-minute jaunt gave us a good variety of birds that included NORTHERN SHOVELER, EARED GREBE, CLARK'S NUTCRACKER, and BANK SWALLOW.

Steller's Jay

Our next Greer stop was at Benny Creek, which is a very interesting birding location and it can be birded on both sides of Highway 373.  The riparian area along Benny Creek was full of common migrants, and an OLIVE WARBLER was heard in the area.  Things then got very interesting as I was looking through a dense tangle of coniferous trees and caught sight of a highly-vertical and "stick-like" perched LONG-EARED OWL.  We enjoyed the Owl for a few minutes before it flew off.  These owls are usually detected visually when they fly off, it was nice to actually spy it first for a change.

This could be passed off as a stick.  But no, look closer, it's a Long-eared Owl!

The Long-eared Owl was in it's camouflage posture when we first found it, and it was well aware of us the entire time.  One little accidental movement I made spooked the bird further into the woods.

This is now the Long-eared Owl's alert posture.  Both of the postures make this bird look like an entirely different bird.  The Long-eared Owl is awesome, and this was one of the trip's major highlights.

We then worked our way to the end of Greer and birded along the West Fork of the Little Colorado River while it was raining lightly.  Gordon noticed white Dipper wash on many of the rocks and we walked up the river a short distance and found a juvenile AMERICAN DIPPER.  Shortly after we found the Dipper, it broke out into continuous song, a song that is a very awesome one in my opinion.  Our last stop for the day came from the east side of River Reservoir which is a day use area accessed from County Road 1126.  Checking the lake from this angle gave us a PEREGRINE FALCON.  We finished our second full day on Sunday with 95 different species.

On Monday, September 15th, we had just over a half day to bird before heading back to Phoenix.  Our first stop of the day was another visit to Becker Lake.  After seeing Charlie Babbit's report of Dickcissels at the lake, we wanted to give them a shot as well as bird the lake early when activity was high.  We didn't see the Dickcissels, but we did have an abundance of birds as we birded around the parking area and walked along weedy areas for a half-mile along the lake's eastern perimeter.  Out of 38 species, highlights included 2 adult BALD EAGLES, SORA, PEREGRINE FALCON, LOGGERHEAD SHRIKE, MARSH, HOUSE, and BEWICK'S WRENS; female INDIGO BUNTING, and many YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRDS by the parking area.

Bald Eagles at Becker Lake

We than gave Wenima Wildlife Area another visit, and highlights there included a LEWIS'S WOODPECKER.  Our next stop was a second visit to Lyman Lake State Park.  As we had many highlights from our first visit, the second visit didn't produce very much.  We did have 4 LONG-BILLED CURLEWS at the east end of the lake, which was our best bird for this second visit.  Our first visit AMERICAN AVOCET count was 1, but this time it was 21.  The three AMERICAN WHITE PELICANS and SNOWY EGRET continued, as well as the presumably same juvenile SANDERLING and three SEMIPALMATED PLOVERS.  This visit showed how things could change by the day at water bodies like this.

American Avocets and American White Pelicans

American Avocets and Western Sandpipers

The final stop of our Apache County trip came from Concho Lake, which is another awesome body of water in this region that has a lot of potential.  Eric, Lauren, and David's recent epic Apache County trip and visit to this lake is what prompted Gordon and I to visit the location.  Other than the lake itself, there are stands of riparian trees and surrounding juniper habitat which could harbor a lot of different bird species.  We didn't see the shorebird variety that they saw, but we did have LEAST, WESTERN, and BAIRD'S SANDPIPERS all standing side-by-side for awesome comparisons.  A flock of nearly 200 COMMON RAVENS was also interesting to see.  Ducks on the water included BLUE-WINGED TEAL and a pair of REDHEAD.  Our best bird in the riparian stand was a flock of 14 CEDAR WAXWINGS.  Concho Lake was a good ending to our Apache County trip.  We detected 81 species altogether for this third day of birding in Apache.

Baird's, Western, and Least Sandpipers (left to right) feeding.

What a nice comparison between the three.

The tallest of the three can see one inch higher than the others.

Size difference is noticeable between these three "peeps".

Baird's Sandpiper

Concho Lake

Concluding, the trip was a major success for both of us as we simply wanted to bird this county at a different time of year other than summer and add species to our Apache County lists.  I got to bird at two locations I have never been before, and most of the area was new for Gordon.  As I've mentioned before, Apache is my favorite Arizona county and I hope to explore a lot more of it throughout the year in the future.  Too bad it isn't closer.  With the three days combined, Gordon and I found 143 species in the county, all from the White Mountain region.  If you haven't explored Apache yet, give it a trip, it's a real treat!!  Thanks Gordon for the awesome trip!

Baird's Sandiper and Western Sandpiper.  They were 2 out of 26 Apache County additions that I gained on this trip with 2.5 days of birding.  My Apache County list went from 172 species to 198 species.  The next trip will hopefully push me well above the 200 mark.  The 26 additions I added to my Apache County list were:  Wilson's Warbler, Townsend's Warbler, Bank Swallow, Brewer's Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Northern Harrier, White-faced Ibis, Northern Shoveler, Marsh Wren, Snowy Egret, American Avocet, Sanderling, Baird's Sandpiper, Sabine's Gull, Black Tern, Semipalmated Plover, Caspian Tern, Western Sandpiper, Hammond's Flycatcher, White-throated Swift, Burrowing Owl, American Pipit, Indigo Bunting, Bewick's Wren, Long-billed Curlew, and Cedar Waxwing.


  1. You saw some amazing birds Mr. Tommy!!! Those Sabine's Gulls are booming right now! That Sanderling is awesome, I have yet to get that bird, and same thing with the GRSP. Nice job on finding that LEOW!!!

    1. Thanks Caleb!

      It was a very fun trip, we had a lot of very neat highlights! I'm looking forward to your Flagstaff posts. I was pumped after I found each of those birds, and the Long-eared Owl was stunning.

  2. What a great post! You are much further ahead on this than I. Those in-flight shots of the Pinyon Jays are fantastic along with the 3 peep comparison photos. Great timing of birding and some memorable sights. Thanks for suggesting this trip and allowing me to join in the fun.

    1. Thanks Gordon! Thanks for an awesome trip, we had a lot of great highlights and this trip was certainly one of the best trips I've taken in a long time!

  3. This is some hardcore birding sprinkled with all kinds of wonderful. In my present life stage I can't imagine birding for more than a couple hours, let alone a solid weekend. Jealous.

    That Long-eared Owl is a choice, choice bird. And that Sabine's? An absolutely stunning bird whose photos are enough to motivate me to stop being lazy and start checking the sewage ponds. I'd love to get a lifer and a county record in one shot.

    1. Thanks Josh!

      Ha ha! Hardcore birding sprinkled with all kinds of wonderful, that's a funny description. That's pretty much what Apache County birding is. It was nice to have a solid weekend of birding, but I will say, sometimes some of those couple hour trips can be some of the best.

      I love the Long-eared Owl, it's nature and camouflaging talents are top notch. And now would be the time to search for Sabine's Gulls in your home county, mid-September through beginning of October is a prime time for them to be passing through!

  4. Tommy, I would like to duplicate your trip. Are these areas open to the public? Did you have long strenuous hikes? Thanks for posting this information!!!

    1. Hi David,

      All of these areas are open to the public except for Sunrise Lake, which is part of the Indian Reservation. If you want to go there, stop by the general store in Sunrise south of Sunrise Lake and purchase a permit for 10 dollars for there and anywhere else on the Res. The hikes and walks we took were easy and weren't strenuous at all.