Wednesday, December 3, 2014

For the Love of Apache County

Hi Everyone,

Sorry for the belated report, I'm finally getting the chance to write this up.  After Thanksgiving, Susan Fishburn, Babs Buck, Gordon Karre, and I headed to the White Mountains to bird Apache County in the very under-birded time frame of late November over the course of November 28th through November 30th.  It was a very fun trip and it was my first real time of birding this awesome area in the winter.

The four of us met up and left early to get into the White Mountains region just after 8 A.M. on November 28th.  Our first stop was at McNary, where we birded the ponds at the Old Mill Area (hotspot on eBird).  There were good numbers of waterfowl and American Coots on these ponds, as well as common songbirds typical of ponderosa pine.  A female CANVASBACK and three BUFFLEHEADS highlighted our short visit here.

A lone female Canvasback is with this mixed flock of Mallards, Gadwall, and two Scaup.  The Canvasback was my first Apache County lifer of the trip.

Our next stop was at Crescent and Big Lakes.  These two lakes were mostly frozen over, but there were pools of water in places where waterfowl congregated in large numbers.  An amazing sight came when a BALD EAGLE stood out on the ice on Big Lake.  This was one out of five Bald Eagles in the Big Lake Area.  Ducks were highlighted by stunning BUFFLEHEAD and COMMON GOLDENEYE drakes.

Bald Eagle on ice.  Breathtaking!

Our next stop was at Sunrise Ski Area.  Other than a flyover GRAY JAY, the place was very quiet.  The temperature here was near 60 degrees-I found myself without a jacket on near 10,000' elevation at the end of November.  Only in Arizona!  We walked around listening for Pine Grosbeak for about an hour without luck.

Sunrise Ski Area.  And yep, no jackets were needed in the late morning.  Epic.

After Sunrise, we went to the Greer Lakes hoping to find some of the neat birds Eric Hough found on the previous week.  Our luck changed around, and we didn't find the waterbirds we were hoping for.  We did have a nice consolation in two EVENING GROSBEAKS at the south side of River Reservoir.  River Reservoir did have an assortment of water birds, that included AMERICAN WIGEON, GREEN-WINGED TEAL, CANVASBACK, RING-NECKED DUCK, BUFFLEHEAD, COMMON GOLDENEYE, RUDDY DUCK, and WESTERN GREBE.  A male NORTHERN HARRIER was along the shore of Bunch Reservoir, as the other two Greer Lakes (Bunch and Tunnel) were deprived of any water birds.

Our next stop was at Grasslands Wildlife Area, which was painfully quiet.  We couldn't even find a Horned Lark.  Things got better when a juvenile FERRUGINOUS HAWK soared over the grasslands.

Gordon trying to turn up a few spurs.  The birds and the thorny things.

As we headed towards Springerville, we noticed that it seemed to be active right as we were passing over the Little Colorado River while driving on the 260 and entering Eager.  A quick scan of the river gave us a nice looking pair of HOODED MERGANSERS.  We decided to get out and look more and we then detected a SWAMP SPARROW in tall grass on the north side of the 260 and just feet east of the bridge that is just over the Little Colorado River.  A tree was full of AMERICAN ROBINS, and Susan counted 22 of them in this spot.

Our last stop for November 28th was at Becker Lake, which had abundant numbers of waterfowl and other water birds.  There were impressive numbers of GADWALL, CANVASBACK, BUFFLEHEAD, COMMON GOLDENEYE, RUDDY DUCK, and AMERICAN COOT.  Several REDHEAD and COMMON MERGANSERS were also present.  The lake also had about 10 HOODED MERGANSERS, which several males were displaying, each in attempt to lure a female.  6 WESTERN and 2 CLARK'S GREBES were also out on the lake.  2 BALD EAGLES paired up in a bare tree, which looked awesome as the evening light set in.  As we walked and birded along the eastern perimeter of the lake Susan was ahead of us and she spied a LARK BUNTING.

Becker Lake.  Hooded Merganser drake flying solo.  The Hooded Merganser was one out of eleven Apache County life birds I added on the trip.  The AC's were Canvasback, Common Goldeneye, Ferruginous Hawk, Hooded Merganser, Swamp Sparrow, Chestnut-collared Longspur, Ross's Goose, Cassin's Finch, California Quail, Greater Scaup, and Merlin.  My list is now at 217 in this awesome county.

On November 29th, we started our day off at Becker Lake after enjoying a flock of Penguins at McDonald's.  Becker Lake was very brisk in the morning, but within an hour it warmed up significantly.  The day actually got up to 68 degrees, which was one warm weekend for this climate and elevation at this time of year (we weren't complaining).  Our main target at Becker Lake were longspurs, which we had success in with locating a flock of ~10 CHESTNUT-COLLARED LONGSPURS.  While we didn't have any ground looks, a few birds flew low and close by to us to give us some great flight views.  They were associating with large numbers of HORNED LARKS.  Scanning Becker Lake resulted in very similar species and numbers as in the previous night.  We did have a late BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHER calling along the eastern side of the lake along the trail, which we eventually were able to see for a few seconds.

Susan, Babs, and Gordon facing the cold.

This Loggerhead Shrike was the only bird on the trip I got a halfway decent photograph of.  LOSH is awesome.

Following Becker, we headed north to Lyman Lake State Park, one of my favorite places in Apache County.  The best highlight we had here among 30 species recorded was a ROSS'S GOOSE mixed in with a flock of CANADA GEESE along the south-eastern end of the lake.  Lyman Lake's northern shore line (opposite of us) had thousands of ducks and many grebes and coots.  Sadly, many were too far out for us to properly scan all of them, but the expected ducks and grebes were found.  A HORNED GREBE at fairly close range was nice to see.  The lake also had a few shorebird surprises, with a late AMERICAN AVOCET and GREATER YELLOWLEGS as well as a few small flocks of LEAST SANDPIPERS.  5 RING-BILLED GULLS were present.  Along one of the shoreline areas were many HORNED LARKS feeding, and they were also joined by ~8 CHESTNUT-COLLARED LONGSPURS.

After Lyman Lake, we went back south and stopped at Wenima Wildlife Area.  One of the better detected birds of the trip came here when we heard a CALIFORNIA QUAIL calling a few times on a slope above the trail we were on.  There is a small population of this quail in the White Mountains, which have an established population and is the only place in Arizona where it can be found.  We were all very happy to add this bird to our state list.  Wenima had abundant numbers of MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRDS, AMERICAN ROBINS, DARK-EYED JUNCOS, and PINE SISKINS.  Several CASSIN'S FINCHES, CHESTNUT-COLLARED LONGSPURS, and WESTERN SCRUB-JAYS were also present.  Seeing the Mountain Bluebirds in high numbers of probably close to 150 individuals was very impressive.  They were everywhere along the trail we hiked, and a shot that Gordon took revealed 25 of them flying up from a water source in one shot, most of which were bright males!

Mountain Bluebirds and Cassin's Finch

Bluebird enjoyment while one scales for Quail

Wenima Wildlife Area has awesome potential at all times of the year.

Going back to Springerville and heading south from there to stop at a number of places began with the Sipe White Mountain Wildlife Area.  Here we had two RED-NAPED SAPSUCKERS and three DARK-EYED JUNCO subspecies, which did include a SLATE-COLORED individual.  A large hawk we weren't seeing well enough raised eyebrows, and it ended up being a juvenile FERRUGINOUS HAWK once I pursued it after I saw where it landed.  Heading out of Sipe gave us looks at a beautiful adult FERRUGINOUS HAWK.

Our next stop continuing south towards Alpine was at Nelson Reservoir.  The south side of the reservoir held an assortment of waterfowl similar to the other stops, but we had a nice surprise with a female GREATER SCAUP.  There was likely another Greater Scaup with this one, and both of these birds had their heads annoyingly rested most of the time.  As LESSER SCAUP swam by, the Greater Scaup was noticeably bigger, had a large rounded head unlike the peaked head of the Lesser Scaup.  As we were looking at ducks, Susan looked up and spied a beautiful MERLIN (Taiga) perched on a juniper tree that was on the slope above us.

Following Nelson we stopped at Nutrioso Reservoir.  Among the selection of waterfowl here were ~50 CANVASBACK.

Our final stop of the 29th came from Luna Lake, which also had a very high abundance of water birds, probably more than anywhere else we visited, but nothing new after a lengthy scan.

On November 30th, we had a half-day planned before heading back home.  High winds in the White Mountains affected a lot what we had planned, but two days of minimal wind was something to be very grateful for.  We birded at South Fork for close to two hours, which was very pleasant with forest birds like CASSIN'S FINCHES, PYGMY NUTHATCHES, and TOWNSEND'S SOLITAIRES being seen.  Sunrise Lake was too windy for any enjoyment, and Hawley Lake was closed.  That ended our Apache County birding for the trip, which resulted in 77 species being seen.  Birding at this time of year is very interesting, and I want to spend more time in the future in this area at this time of year.  Two days is awesome, but there is so much exploring to do.  We tried hard for two targets we thought we would get, Rough-legged Hawk and a Loon species, without any luck.

Townsend's Solitaire

Elk herd running around near Sunrise.  They probably heard a gunshot.  It was elk season.

One the way home we stopped at Gila County's Timber Camp and Jones Water Campground.  Both are amazing places, and the highlight came when Susan found a female WILLIAMSON'S SAPSUCKER at Timber Camp.  Jones Water Campground had abundant bird life, and is one of those locations that will have good birding on a year round basis.  We ended the trip with over 100 species in all of the traveling combined.  Thank you much to Susan, Babs, and Gordon for an awesome trip!  All of our eBird checklists from the trip are up on eBird.

From left to right:  Babs Buck, Gordon Karre, Susan Fishburn, Tommy D.....

Good Birding,

Tommy DeBardeleben (Glendale, Arizona)


  1. You have some very fun photos here. The LOSH is great. That is awesome that you are up to 217 AC birds! Congrats!

    1. Thanks Gordon! It was awesome to go on another Apache County birding trip with you. We have had a great time exploring that awesome place and hopefully we'll go back there in the future in the different seasons, but probably not next year due to expenses!

  2. Great post and photos Mr. Tommy!!! Man one more trip up there and you will destroy 1st place for Apache! Finding the CAQU in AZ has been a dream of mine for a long time. Do they stay out there year-round? In the meantime #1 for Apache this year, great job!

    1. Thanks Caleb! Yes the CAQU are year round residents in this area, but they can be pretty hard to find based on what I have heard.

  3. Wow, time to make some popcorn and watch eBird as you stage your Apache coup. Your birding kingdom is expanding! I'm glad there's a sufficient buffer of states between you and Kandiyohi County! On second thought, you might dig up some really cool stuff if you came here.

    Lovely shrike photos and good birding all around with a good report. Congrats on the new state bird!

    1. Kandiyohi County, here I come! It's time to win the lottery so I can freestyle bird in every state and county for the rest of my life! *I wish*.

      Thanks Josh! It was a great trip and I was thrilled to get the Quail.