On July 26th, 2014, Gordon Karre and I along with Chris Rohrer and Magill Weber, made a trek from Greer, Arizona all the way to Teec Nos Pos, Arizona. While Google map directions are usually precise with directions, we all coincidentally did something wrong. We thought Teec Nos Pos was only three hours north of Greer. Well, after three hours of driving that day, we weren't anywhere near Teec Nos Pos. Try 5.5 hours one way, dumb Google. After we left Greer at 5 A.M. that day, we arrived at Teec Nos Pos close to 11 A.M. And it was a hole that day. But we were after a very cool bird, the Black-billed Magpie. At one time in Arizona birding history, Black-billed Magpies were found south of Teec Nos Pos a considerable distance at Many Farms Lake and Ganado Lake in the past. The population then decreased dramatically over the years and Black-billed Magpies haven't been found outside of Teec Nos Pos in a long time. On the dreadful day, we drove 11 hours and came up Magpie-less. Bad luck began from the start. A seemingly freaky sighting of something I don't want to really get into was sighted and the place was hot and was dead. Perhaps it was a druggie in Teec Nos Pos Wash, I don't think we'll ever know. Anyways, this wash is known for the Magpies, and we walked up it a short distance without hearing anything. And then we spent three hours driving around the area and it's good Magpie habitats, without luck. To top it all off, the community was vacant and really did seem a little sketchy. All I could think of was the drive home. The boring drive home. It was rather heartbreaking to be honest. A whole day, just shot. If it weren't for the hilarious Chris Rohrer on the way home, than the day would've been completely dreadful. Just check out one of my recent posts on the Birding Stereotypes movie I'm making and check out the videos, "The Blowhard Expert" and "The Bad Pronouncer". Some good did come out of it. Meanwhile, the Black-billed Magpies must have sat up on the Teec Nos Pos peak and laughed at us from way above. I was in shock that we spent so long driving and looking without a Pica soul. Every other birder who I knew of at least had one or two Magpies when visiting the place. It had to have been the time of day.
In some ways, that day felt like a nightmare. We went the day before from being in gorgeous conifer forests to desolate lands. But Teec Nos Pos does have life. The wash is full of lush riparian habitat made up of cottonwoods and more, and the surrounding hills are filled with juniper habitat. That makeup isn't bad by any means, hours of driving is the killer. Black-billed Magpies prefer open areas with lines of cottonwoods in the midst of the open areas, and Teec Nos Pos supports their favored habitat. In the past, I saw a 1977 eBird report in the wash area that numbered a couple dozen Black-billed Magpies, a Common Grackle, 5 Ovenbirds (!), and 5 Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. For loving Apache County so much, a day like that at a location is something I would dream of. With the bitter taste still in our mouths from that depriving and long day in July, Gordon and I wanted to get revenge on that day and erase the bitter taste from our lives. We planned yet another trip into Apache County for a few days to target the Black-billed Magpie and more Apache County birds to build our county lists. Obviously, the Magpie was the most important. It was this most recent Monday, September 29th, that we made the trek once again to Teec Nos Pos. Fear was going through our heads again though too. What if we would miss the bird. On the night of September 28th, we stayed in Chambers, which is about a three hour drive to Teec Nos Pos. We hit the road by 4:30 A.M. on the 29th, and started our long trek. Not much stopped us on the way. We saw my 200th bird for Apache County fly across the road just south of Ganado, a Common Poorwill at 5 A.M.! After a minute of stopping and listening, we didn't see or hear any more Common Poorwills. Shortly after that, we were treated to seeing a Red Fox cross the road, a lifer mammal for me. Other than the Poorwill stop and a quick stop I had to make to lose ten pounds at a gas station restroom, we went straight to Teec Nos Pos. As it was 7 A.M. we were nearing the wash area. I was getting anxious, and nervous. The Black-billed Magpies NEEDED to be there. And all Gordon and I really needed was one. At 7:07 A.M. we reached the wash. As I was driving and was about to pull up to the wash, Gordon then screamed, "I see one!". Sure enough, there was a Black-billed Magpie in it's striking splendor sitting up on a bare high tree and branch at the entrance to Teec Nos Pos Wash. It was an incredible sight. We certainly didn't expect the Black-billed Magpie to be our very first bird of Teec Nos Pos. Wow!! As we started to pull up to the bird, it then flew north and across the Highway 160 we came up to the other side of the road, where Teec Nos Pos Wash also continued north for a good distance. While these aren't that great of shots, it does represent a good memory of my Arizona first Magpie in flight.
We then took a dirt road north of the 160 and along the northern stretch of the wash where we thought was were the Magpie took flight too. We didn't see that specific bird again, so we went back to the main wash entrance on the south side of Highway 160. From then on we found more Magpies. Once again, there was a bird at the front of the wash and it was then joined by another. They flew shortly across the 160 to the northern half of the wash. Gordon and I followed them and got to enjoy more looks at our state birds. Black-billed Magpies are also very noisy, and there voice can travel for a long distance. When they fly overhead, they are vocal a lot of the time as so when they are perched up. That pair was then joined by another two Magpies who came from the southern side of the 160 at the main wash entrance. After seeing another possible and fifth Magpie, we were happy to have a count of at least four birds to start the day off.
With it's long tail and unique striking look, seeing the Black-billed Magpie fly overhead is exciting to see! And it seemed weird to think that we were barely in Arizona. Stuff like this is what makes birding fun, especially a hardcore expedition to see an Arizona specialty who's range is barely in Arizona.
We then made our way down the wash on the south side of the 160 shortly after we observed the four birds on the north side of the 160. Shortly after we started our walk, we heard more Magpies and quickly found four more birds! As the count grew, we were pleased with the amount of birds we were getting after seeing multiple eBird reports of one or very few birds. The sound of the Magpie is still in my head as I am writing this! I noted that the Magpies were calling loudly wherever they were and we both kept a close eye on things to get our count at this moment in time of eight birds.
We stayed in Teec Nos Pos Wash for about twenty minutes to search for migrants. There wasn't anything else rare in the fourth-of-a-mile we covered in the Wash, but it was birdy. After birding the wash, we headed south for about a mile into the small town area of Teec Nos Pos. The Magpie excitement turned out to be far from over! As we were driving on the road, Gordon spied this Magpie perched up perfectly in a juniper tree. We were beyond shocked at the sight of this bird, who seemed to welcome himself onto our Arizona lists.
Gordon rolled down his window and we both slouched over to get the photos we did of this spectacular and showy bird. It just sat there for us and called very consistently. The Black-billed Magpie is one of four North American songbirds where it's tail makes up half or more of it's total body length. Outside of Arizona, this species may be abundant in places, but even where it is stupidly common, could it's wow factor ever go away? I think not.
As we continued south into town, this Magpie was one or three to four more birds. We seemed to hear more of them other than what we were seeing as well. While it was difficult to obtain an exact count of this bird due to the fact that corvids do move rapidly, we decided to give the count a safe bet at ten birds, when there were likely twelve and a few more. It was very shocking to see eBird reports before our sighting today of having one bird so many times and then follow it up by having a count in the double digits. Is it the time of day, perhaps?
The Black-billed Magpie is present throughout much of the western half of North America, where it is abundant in places. They forage on the ground a lot, searching for seeds and animal prey. Typical Black-billed Magpie habitat consists of open area with lines of scattered trees in a variety of surrounding habitats and elevations. The scattered cottonwoods lining Teec Nos Pos Wash and the general openness of the town of Teec Nos Pos makes it an ideal location for this species to reside.
Gordon and I birded this area for just over two hours, and we had way more than we possibly could have asked for as far as the Magpies were concerned. When a bitter search and long chase comes up empty, I cause the best thing to do would be to get revenge on those chases and searches if another opportunity presents itself. And we had another opportunity that worked out great! Revenge is so sweet! Because the Black-billed Magpie was such a huge deal for the trip, this post will only cover the Magpie. The Magpie excitement was one half the trip, and the rest of the trip after Teec Nos Pos was the second half of the trip. The rest of the trip will conclude in one of my upcoming posts, which will feature a lot of Apache County from Teec Nos Pos at the north all the way south to the Springerville area. Stay tuned. To make the final close, here are a few more pictures of the Pica hudsonia (the scientific name of the Black-billed Magpie).