Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Apache County: Nearly North to South

Remember my last post after Gordon and I found our awesome Arizona Black-billed Magpies?  That is where I left off, and I guess that is where I'll start for this post.  Apache County is my favorite county in Arizona, and this is the second September trip I've taken this year.  For Apache County being my favorite out of Arizona's 15 counties, I have only birded it in the summer prior to the month of September.  Gosh, it has felt great to see Apache County at a different time of the year!  And I hope I can take a few more trips this year such as in October, November, and maybe even December.  Before I start with this adventure of the second half of the trip, I'll put in one more reminder of how cool the Black-billed Magpie is.

After Teec Nos Pos, Gordon and I covered almost all of Apache County lengthwise from north to south even though there is probably 20 more miles once we reached our southernmost destination of Springerville and Big Lake in the remaining day-and-a-half of our trip post Teec Nos Pos.  Apache County is a slim county, but because it is so long in it's length it is one of Arizona's biggest counties, even topping out my home Maricopa.  The northern reaches of Apache County are barren for the most part overall.  It does have some outstanding and standout habitats though that make the area an awesome birding destination.  While all of this stretch resides on the Navajo Indian Reservation, the Reservation is one that is rather easy to bird.  I purchased a book by Brad Jacobs right as we left on our trip, which is called Birding the Navajo and Hopi Reservations.  It was published in 1986, but it contains great historical information about this area.  I'm already daydreaming about taking crazy winter and fall trips up here after reading about many of the records.  In one winter day in one location, 20 American Tree Sp....Tommy stop.  The book is mine now after the fact Gordon and I explored this area.  To be honest, we didn't see much as we traveled and birded from Teec Nos Pos south to Ganado.  This area takes a long time to bird, and by the time we left Ganado, it was nearly dark.  One of the places we stopped at was this Wastewater Treatment Plant in a community on the Reservation called Rock Point.  The ponds were highlighted by two Baird's Sandpipers, but other than that, there wasn't much else.  Throughout the year, I could see it being an interesting place. 

The desolate land is sure desolate.  But the red rocks are numerous everywhere and are cool.  A place we were really looking forward to stopping at was the expansive Many Farms Lake.  Black-billed Magpies used to reside here in large numbers, but they have vanished from the area.  Despite the fact Many Farms Lake is a big reservoir, the birds seem to only like the southern side of the lake.  The reason is because the southern side of the lake isn't muddy with sediment as much as the rest of the lake.  This results in floods from storms during the monsoon seasons, and the dam levels are raised to create shallower water levels in lakes like Many Farms.  While the lake is still good for birding, if the water wasn't so dirty, we could possibly be looking at one of the best lakes in all of Arizona for birding possibilities.  Gordon and I probably missed something here because we started to get very hungry and had to leave for food.  The southern shoreline is known for it's shorebirds, and we saw 20 or so American Avocets and distant waterfowl.  I'd love to see this place again, especially with clearer waters throughout the lake.

Brad Jacobs found all sorts of awesome birds at Many Farms during his five year tenure of studying the Reservation's bird life extensively.  His book is out of print now, I feel blessed to have found a copy on Amazon.  Ya ya.  After a stop at Burger King, Gordon and I went a little off the birding path to take a look down into Canyon De Chelly.  We spent about 1.5 hours at this scenic canyon.  Other than White-throated Swifts flying around the canyon, we didn't have much for the way of birdlife.  But with this scenery at Canyon de Chelly National Monument, you don't need to have a ton of birds around (although it would still be nice!)

The Canyon has ancient ruins and plenty of other cool things.  And many cool birds have been found along the riparian areas of the canyon.  On the northfacing sides of the canyon are stands of Douglas fir in places.  Spotted Owls even call this area home, how awesome is that!  Gordon and I both agreed that Canyon de Chelly is just as cool as the Grand Canyon itself.

From Canyon de Chelly, Gordon and I went over to the area of Ganado where we were going to visit a highly anticipated and awesome Ganado Lake.  Before the lake, we stopped at the Ganado Wastewater Treatment Plant.  As we started birding, we observed this Common Raven harassing this Osprey.  It was quite the sight!

But the WTP itself didn't have much..

It was then on to Ganado Lake.  This lake is filled with thousands of waterbirds, and probably the highest amount of American Coots I have seen in my entire life.  We didn't have time to count them, but I'm sure the numbers were overwhelming.  We did put down 2,500 for a safe count, although I'm sure there were probably 4 thousand of them.  Many ducks and grebes were around also, but the Lake had a shocking lack of shorebirds.  

As my hopes were dwindling for finding new Apache County birds here, Gordon then turned around and spied a new "AC" for the both of us, a Sage Thrasher.  The lake has surrounding juniper habitat, which is what Sage Thrashers prefer to be in.  This is a species I love to see, and it was fun to get one in Apache.  Gordon's find turned out to be clutch, as this was the only Sage Thrasher we had the entire trip.  They are migrating right now too!

The new Apache County Sage Thrasher got my all hyped up.  We made one last stop at a historical place in Ganado called the Hubbell Trading Post.  The Post has many tall trees lining the area, most of which are cottonwoods.  Many eastern vagrants have been found here.  Gordon and I didn't have any vagrants, but we recognized it as a place to bird early in the morning on potential future trips.  If one was up here on a regular basis in this area of the northeastern side of Arizona, they would probably lead the state per year in finds of eastern vagrants.  Gosh, I want to be the one!  It was a long drive back to Springerville, where we stayed in the 0.1 star White Mountain Motel.  

The next day, September 30th, was nearly a full day of Apache County birding before heading back to the Phoenix area.  Things started at the Sipe White Mountain Wildlife Area with a few bull elk.

Just like our visit a couple weeks earlier to Sipe, Pinyon Jays were literally everywhere.  I snapped some photos of the big flock, and 70 Pinyon Jays are viewable in my frame.  These gregarious jays are fun to listen to and watch.  

The Pinyon Jays give a loud, "eeyaaaa" sound when in flight, which is very distinctive.  These long-billed corvids are impressive rather they are flying solo or, in this case, flying in the seventies.  Sipe was full of birds like usual on this morning.  Out of 49 species, one of them was new for my Apache County list, which was a quick visit with a female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker near the visitors center.  She was in the mix of an impressive number of several dozen migrating Red-naped Sapsuckers.  Everywhere we looked in the deciduous trees near the entrance to Sipe was filled with Sapsuckers.  If one put their ears up to the wood, perhaps they would lose their hearing.  Maybe not that drastic, but sap was everywhere and so were it's suckers.  I was impressed.  Gordon got a new AC bird out of it though, this American Goldfinch.

After birding Sipe and after a slow visit to Wenima Wildlife Area, Gordon and I made what turned out to be our stop of the day at Lyman Lake State Park.  This lake is fantastic, and we haven gotten lucky here with at least one neat bird during our visits here on our trip.  On September 30th, it was really no different.  We started off with a load of Canada Geese on the lake as well as four American White Pelicans.  Things got very awesome and also very interesting when I looked out on the lake and saw a group of terns floating on the water.  

I could immediately see that they were Forster's Terns, which would be new for Apache for me as well as a state bird for Gordon.  Wow.  But then I looked closer and saw something different in the flock, something I wasn't expected to find up here at all.

I could see that there was also a Common Tern in the flock.  See the middle bird?  That's a Common Tern.  And at this time of year, Forster's Terns are completely out of their breeding plumage and have a dark mask near their eye as well as a pale crown and nape.  The Common Tern was much of it's black crown still retained, as well as a dark nape.  I was excited at the sight, and so was Gordon, as both species were new for Apache for me and were both state birds for Gordon.  What a killer sequence.  The terns all of a sudden kicked up and flew further west along the lake.  We followed in the direction and ended up with better views, killer views I will add through the scope.  Shockingly, we discovered another Common Tern with the group as they went further west, one that was in breeding plumage.  This bird was actively flying around the lake and was catching small fish.  The other Common was sitting on a buoy, the non-breeding one we originally saw, and the breeding bird would come up and feed the non-breeding bird.  They must have been lovers or something.  It was an impressive sight, a six tern flock of 2 Commons and 4 Forsters.  These terns, which are in the tern genus called Sterna, are usually quite a challenge to identify.  It gave us the chance to learn more about them, which we don't get to see much of in Arizona at all.  To reach our conclusion on there being two Common Terns, this is what we noticed out in the field (and my description in eBird):  A pair of Common Terns was a surprise to find at Lyman Lake, and they were mixed in with a small flock of four Forster's Terns. Both of the Common Terns were adults, one was holding it's breeding plumage while the other was in non-breeding plumage. At one point, the non-breeding bird sat on a buoy while the other one in breeding plumage fished in the lake and brought it's catch to feed the non-breeding bird. Both took turns sitting on the buoy. This sequence was photographed by Gordon Karre, and it was surprising to see this behavioral trait in eastern Arizona. Field mark wise, sterna terns can be very difficult to identify in the field, but at this time of the year, the identification is more straightforward. With the adult Common Tern, it was noticeable right away due to the fact that Forster's Terns lose their breeding plumage by the end of August. The other tern in mind to compete with this identification would be the Arctic Tern, which is extremely rare in Arizona. Arctic Tern was ruled out because this Common Tern showed medium length legs when perched on a buoy (Arctic would be very short), the tail on the Common Tern was shorter than the wingtips when the wings and tail were lined up (Forster's and Arctic Terns typically have longer tails when perched up with folded wings, especially Forster's, slightly in Arctic), and when this bird took flight, it showed an obvious dark "wedge" on it's primaries (which isn't as prevalent of a factor in the other two species). With the non-breeding Common Tern, Forster's was immediately ruled out due to the extensive black on the bird's crown and nape area, where the Forster's Tern shows a dark "mask"/black wedge behind the eye and their entire crown and nape are pale at this time of year in juveniles and adults. Both Forster's and Arctic Terns were also eliminated because of an obvious dark and black "carpal-bar" that is evident on the shoulder of this species (Arctic has a similar trait in a carpal par being present, but is less obvious than the Common Tern's noticeable and dark field mark). When the non-breeding bird perched on the buoy, it also showed medium length legs as opposed to the very short legs of the Arctic Tern and the longer legs of the Forster's Tern. While the breeding plumaged Common Tern didn't swim with the mixed flock of terns, the non-breeding bird did. The bill sizes of the two species are similar in length, and good comparisons are shown in the photographs (Arctic has a shorter bill than these two). I am giving a few select photos below that show the field marks of this species.

A new Apache bird in a Horned Grebe gave us a great ending to Lyman Lake after we viewed the terns.  It was my seventh AC addition to the trip, and we had more places to go.  After stopping at Becker, Crescent, and Big Lakes, we didn't have much else on our trip before heading home.  A distant gull that gave as a weird impression went from a possible Herring and after a half-mile walk along the Big Lake shoreline, it only turned out to be a Ring-billed Gull.  On the plus side, it was a new AC bird for Gordon.  He added 12 birds to his list to go from 167 to 179.  I went from 199 to 206 for Apache County.  Driving through Big Lake added some wonderful scenery to close out the trip.  You can't get enough of this!

Thanks to Gordon for the wonderful birding trip, one that was very fun and great for exploring, birding, and sightseeing.  Thanks to the 7 AC's:  Common Poorwill, Black-billed Magpie, Sage Thrasher, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Forster's Tern, Common Tern, and Horned Grebe.  They made my Apache list increase.  Hopefully I will make it to this northeasternmost county in Arizona again, very soon!


  1. Great post and photos Mr. Tommy!!!

    I still have yet to get an AMGO! But hopefully I will get one this winter. Finding a Common Tern in a Forster's Tern flock is CRAZY!!!! Those are some nice birds Mr. Tommy!

    1. Thank you Caleb! You'll probably get that AMGO this winter, and yes, the Common Terns did seem rather crazy. I'm very glad that we got to find them!

  2. It sounds like this trip was full of avian adventure for you two. Those Common Terns were a pretty sweet find, and I really enjoyed your Sage Thrasher photos. Oh, and birds would only be a bonus to a visit to Canyon de Chelly. It looks like an awesome place - glad you took a break to enjoy it!

    1. Thanks Josh! It was a trip full of avian adventure. I was shocked with the terns, and I was very glad we found them, it was only my 3rd time ever of seeing Common Tern. Canyon de Chelly is one awesome place, I'm very glad that we took a look at it. There is undoubtedly good birding there though.