Wednesday, May 25, 2016

A Rump Whiter Than Mine..

Recently on May 18th, 2016, I teamed up with Sean Fitzgerald to bird in the northwest section of Maricopa County, both extreme and basic northwest.  The extreme took us to Aguila, a small agricultural community at the northwestern tip of Maricopa County.  Basic northwest took us to Lake Pleasant and a brief stop at the Rest Area along the Hassayampa River.  Aguila is a neat place that is very underbirded.  It does have a known population of Pyrrhuloxias, and that was Sean and my main target for the morning.  After taking Highway 60 about 30 miles west of Wickenburg, we stopped at the 60's junction with 453rd Avenue, where Pyrrhuloxia's are known to breed and be present.  Before we got to our search, rains the previous night and early in the morning created some cool effects.

As we birded along 453rd Avenue we heard a cardinal song that could have gone either way between NOCA and PYRR.  The two species really have a lot of overlap.  Once we got to the 60 and went east of 453rd, the singing kicked up a notch more.  The question was quickly solved when we spied our target fly up and land on a power line!

Before we knew it, we tallied five individual Pyrrhuloxias and we had killer looks at one of the males.  4 out of the 5 birds we tallied were males, and if each one of them had a mate somewhere, than there could possibly be 8 birds right at this intersection.  A good bird for Maricopa County.  Here are a few pictures to show off this cooperative and awesome Maricopa County Pyrrhuloxia.

Sean and I kept going west to see more of Aguila.  At a farm area, we found a male Indigo Bunting in a weedy area surrounded by mesquite.  What really impressed us were the fields in the area.  Some of them were tall grass farmfields.  In the winter, these fields look to have good potential for Short-eared Owl.  There is no doubt I will be trying for them in this upcoming winter.  From here, we ventured shortly north into Yavapai Counties and landed both Pyrrhuloxia and Bendire's Thrasher, two new Yavapai County birds for me.  On the way back, we checked Lake Pleasant for any odd birds.  Three Forster's Terns sat on buoys, and the best highlight came from Sean's first-for-Maricopa Willet and my first-of-the-year Willet.  The Willet was sitting right below the dam.  Exploring Aguila was a nice accomplishment.

As it was still around noon when Sean had to get to work, I had the entire day left to bird.  I didn't know what to do at first, but I then decided to go south into Pinal County's Santa Cruz Flats area to look for the very-rare-in-Arizona White-rumped Sandpiper.  Sean had found three of these casual visitors to Arizona on a trek through the flats at a small dairy farm at the southeast corner of Harmon and Toltec Roads.  For about five days, I passed up on the chance to go see these birds.  I had Bushnell Tanks to cover on May 14th for the North American Migration Count, and I was wanting to find a rarity of my own in Maricopa County.  But this seemed to be a good day to see these White-rumped Sandpipers, a potential life bird for me if I could have a successful chase of an hour and change plus.  My chances seemed better when Caleb Strand, and Walker and Dalton Noe reported the birds still being present.  I started on my way and got to Toltec and Harmon right before 2 P.M.

Most White-rumped Sandpiper records in Arizona have come from the eastern half of the state, especially in Willcox.  Sean's discovery was a Pinal County first.  Maricopa has never had a White-rumped Sandpiper record.  The pond that the birds were being seen in was pretty ugly, but hey, if ugly has nice birds than ugly is awesome.  I didn't see the birds at first when I scanned the pond..

Turns out the birds just blended in well and on my third scan of the small pond I caught movement of four peeps.  Two of them turned out to be Western Sandpipers and the other two turned out to be White-rumped Sandpipers.  The White-rumped Sandpipers stayed far away, but I snapped some pictures anyways and studied them through my scope.  In these pictures, the birds were moving east (left) and were behind two Black-necked Stilts.

White-rumped Sandpipers are similar to Baird's Sandpipers with the fact that both have long wings that project noticeably beyond the tail.  Both are also bigger than the smaller peeps we see often such as Least and Western Sandpipers.  If the White-rumped Sandpipers are with these birds, they are picked out because of the size factor.  Separating a breeding White-rumped Sandpiper from Baird's Sandpiper is pretty straightforward too.  White-rumped has a white supercillum, streaking on it's sides, rufous scapulars, and a white "rump" that is diagnostic and stands out in flight.  Luckily, one of the White-rumped Sandpipers flew closer to me for much better study.  Can you see the white rump?

The bird was then a little cooperative for me to get some decent photographs.

After foraging on the mud flat for a few minutes, the Sandpiper took flight and I was ready to document it's white rump where it gets it's name from.  And true to the title, it's rump is whiter than mine...

Like most sandpipers, White-rumped Sandpipers breed in the far north on mudflats.  They usually migrate south and north through the eastern and central part of the United States.  Getting to see one in Arizona is a treat, and it was number 497 on my life list.  I am getting close to 500 folks!

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The King of Thick Highlights at Hassayampa

The Hassayampa River Preserve near Wickenburg is always an awesome place to go birding at.  I usually see something very cool whenever I am visiting the location.

The endless cottonwood and willow riparian galleries are not only a rare habitat in Maricopa County but they are filled with amazing bird life.  One such example is a local Gray Hawk population that numbers in double digits.  Gray Hawks are rare in Maricopa County outside of the Hassayampa River.  A bird that isn't rare in the County is the Yellow-breasted Chat.  Their calls and songs fill the preserve.

Hassayampa has recently became "the spot" to see Broad-billed Hummingbirds in Maricopa County.  There are at least four of these hummingbirds at the Preserve that I can think of.  Once considered casual in Maricopa County, Broad-billed Hummingbirds are growing very fast in numbers in some areas.  Here is a male Broad-billed that was frequenting feeders within the Preserve.  What a cool looking bird!

The double call notes of the Summer Tanager is a very common sound along the river.  Sometimes it's all one hears.  The caller will sometimes come into view, followed by his lighter yellow counterpart.

Hooded Orioles also bring in excitement, and are usually seen right near the Preserve's entrance and visitor area.  A male was sitting up high here, but was obviously noticeable.

Bullock's Orioles too.....

A cool draw to me at this time of year at Hassayampa are the Kingbirds.  Along the Mesquite Meander Trail, a pair of Tropical Kingbirds have begun building a nest.  Like the Gray Hawk, the Hassayampa area has it's own population of Tropical Kingbirds. This is the usual location to see this flycatcher in Maricopa County, although they have been found elsewhere on occasion as a breeder or rare winter visitor.

One of my best encounters here during these visits I made was not from a bird, but was from my first ever Desert Tortoise.  These turtles are epic!  As I was hiking up a trail and was taking a quick break, I looked up the trail to see the turtle walking down the trail and in my direction.  I decided to sit there, and the turtle proceeded to walk right past me.  At times we were less than a foot away from each other, and I was the one who didn't budge!

Here's a video of the Turtle as I viewed him to show how great this experience was.

I mentioned days here didn't I?  Yup.  After I got home last Friday I thought I didn't miss any major highlights.  Turns out I did.  The next day, Melanie Herring found a Thick-billed Kingbird along the Mesquite Meander trail and in the same area as the Tropical Kingbirds.  Sometimes both species were in the same tree!  I was kicking myself and I probably walked right by the Thick-billed.  The Thick-billed Kingbird would be a new Maricopa County bird for me, and it's just an awesome bird in general.  I wanted to see it badly!  In the past, Thick-billed Kingbirds bred at Hassayampa and were mainly along Mesquite Meander within the known preserve limits from 2003 to 2008.  They stopped the year I really got into birding.  After Melanie found the bird, I saw that many others got to see due to it being the North American Migration Count on May 14th.  I was elsewhere in the field, but I did get off of work the following afternoon at 2 P.M.  With Hassayampa having it's last day of closing at 5 P.M. for the season, I would have about two hours of Kingbird searching.  I felt good about my chances on Sunday the 15th, since others had seen it earlier in the day.

Well, my two hour search didn't produce that highly wanted Kingbird.  I may have seen it after turning a corner to see a Kingbird flying away.  Thinking it was one of the two Tropical's that were present, I only looked to see the two Tropicals sitting together in the same tree this mystery Kingbird flew out of.  To be honest, I was very bummed out about missing this one.  With the Hassayampa Preserve going back to it's summer hours after this day, it would force me to wait and try for the Kingbird on Saturday.  Perhaps I was just there at the wrong time of day.  For the bird sticking around, however, and with the area it was hanging out in, however, history for Thick-billed Kingbird here was on my side!  The bummer was lifted in a lot of ways on my way out a minute before closing time at 4:59 P.M..  I looked up in a mulberry tree to see my first male Rose-breasted Grosbeak.  This is a striking bird, and I've only seen two females in my past.  Wow!

When Saturday, May 21st came around, I was ready to look for the Thick-billed Kingbird for the second time.  This time I felt hope was really on my side as Sean Fitzgerald and Tyler Loomis found the bird the day before on Friday.  With this species formerly breeding here in the past, I've always hoped they would return.  I was ready to see it in Maricopa County, and I wanted it badly.

My good friend Gordon Karre and I made plans to bird the Hassayampa together on this Saturday for the four hours that the Preserve was open.  Gordon and I were joined by Joshua Smith and his dad Garth, Dale Clark, Babs Buck, Lois Lorenz, and Julie Clark.  The eight of us headed over to the Mesquite Meander Trail quickly in pursuit of the Thick-billed Kingbird.  I was very anxious about wanting to see it.  Once on the trail, it took us less than ten minutes to get to the spot where the Kingbird was being seen at most often.  Looking up at the familiar trees, I could already see the Tropical Kingbird pair as soon as we arrived at the location.  And then the Thick-billed Kingbird started calling, and it started calling loudly!  It was very close to us.  At times, the loud voice of the Thick-billed Kingbird made it sound closer than it really was at times.  With many pairs of eyes scanning, Joshua Smith got his eyes on the Thick-billed Kingbird first.  I was very glad to look up and see it sitting on an exposed branch on a bare top of a tree.  The Kingbird vocalized often before being chased off by the two Tropical Kingbirds.  I forgot to check my camera settings before firing off shots of the Thick-billed Kingbird and I didn't get anything.  It was very frustrating, until the Kingbird came back twenty minutes later...

Joshua Smith has a good eye, and he spied the Thick-billed Kingbird flying into another set of cottonwoods further down the trail.  As we rushed over to the spot, the Kingbird started calling again.  Gordon managed to spy the bird through a "window" in a tree and this time, I had my camera settings right!

See how massive the Thick-billed Kingbird's bill is?  It's a well named bird.  In the United States (ABA area), southeastern Arizona is the main location to see this highly local species.  It is a sought after prize for many out-of-state visitors.  The fact Maricopa County has had them breeding at the Hassayampa River Preserve is a big thrill and that this one has appeared for many to see so far.

As the Kingbird switched positions, it then sat in a more open perch, where eight birders gathered around to enjoy it for a long time as it sat there contently.  The bird often preened itself and would call at times too.  Hearing the bird call was awesome, and the vocalizations it gave were very loud.  It almost sounded like the Thick-billed Kingbird was using a microphone.

The eight birders left the Kingbird sitting there.  After it flew off for a long time earlier, it then became that cooperative.  Gordon mentioned that without it's vocalizations at times, the bird would be very hard to locate, and he was right!

We had at least 5 Tropical Kingbirds on the day, but there was a good chance there were seven individuals.  A third pair couldn't be confirmed for sure, but that number was highly likely.

There were many swallows and some White-throated Swifts flying over the Palm Lake Trail when our group made it up there after Mesquite Meander.  In midst of them was an uncommon to rare migrant, a female Purple Martin!  She really stood out like a sore thumb with her much larger size.  The White-throated Swift was the one I was able to get a photograph of.  None of these birds are easy to photograph..

As we continued down the path along Palm Lake, a couple pointed out a Kingbird to us and said, "Here's the Tropical Kingbird up here".  I looked and saw that it was the Thick-billed Kingbird!  It was the Thick-billed Kingbird or another Thick-billed Kingbird, we can't be certain.  If it was the same bird, it was quite a distance away from where we were originally seeing it at.  In the near future, it's definitely worth checking the area for two birds.  This time, we all got a much closer look at it.

Gordon and I eventually covered the rest of Hassayampa on our own and saw many more birds in the four hours that we had to bird there.  Certainly some eventful three outings for me at the Preserve.  Thanks to everyone I birded with and to those who reported the good birds present during this time.

The Thick-billed Kingbird was the second addition to my Maricopa County list this year to bring that list to 377 species.  Speaking of 376, I haven't blogged about that one yet.  I will get to that in a near future blog post in an adventure that took me to a remote side of Maricopa County that I have never been to before.  I'm also behind in many blog posts, stay tuned for several others coming along also.  Last, TOBY will resume next weekend as I pursue my 18th North American Owl of the year.  With Flammulated Owl coming as my 17th species as of a month ago, I've had almost a month of my normal Maricopa County birding.  Stay tuned.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Fantastic Four Coniferous Forest Owls of Slate Creek Divide

Recently I have been in talks with my friends Gordon Karre and Joshua Smith about taking them up to Slate Creek Divide for some hardcore night birding as well as the usual day birding.  On this most recent Thursday and Friday, April 28th and 29th, 2016, it worked out for Gordon, Josh, and I, to go on a camping trip to Slate Creek Divide at the same time.  The three of us teamed up and made a good birding team by the time the trip was all said and done.  For those of you who don't know about Slate Creek Divide, it is a Maricopa County birder's paradise for high elevation birds, both common and rare.  As Mount Ord is a well traveled high elevation Maricopa County area, the adjacent Slate Creek Divide is not.  Slate Creek is a much more remote wilderness area, and a rugged dirt road that goes for about ten miles up into the area ends at the Mount Peeley Trailhead, which is part of the Arizona Trail.  This is where Gordon, Josh, and I all met up, at the end of the trailhead.  Here we would set up camp.  As this area doesn't see a whole lot of camping activity, it all-of-a-sudden looked like Tent City.  I think it looked freakin' awesome.

Here's each dude in front of his home for the night, and what a cold night it did turn out to be!  As you can see from this photograph, we are cool people.  

Gordon and I have explored Maricopa County's high elevations a lot and we have seen most of what's to be expected in these elevations in the County.  Yeah, there still is room for more and that is a good thing!  For Josh, he's only been to Mount Ord once prior to this Slate Creek trip for his Maricopa County high elevation birding.  Because of this factor, there wasn't a dull moment at all during this trip for a very eager Joshua Smith.  Josh had a lot of targets for both his life and Maricopa County list.  Two birds that he really wanted to see were Spotted Owl and Painted Redstart.

Josh and I carpooled in Josh's high clearance vehicle for the slow route up the rugged road to Slate Creek's higher elevations, where we met up with Gordon.  We arrived at 6:30 and without much time before it was about to get completely dark outside.  With high winds and rain earlier in the day that hit Gordon before he made the trek up to Slate Creek, the weather appeared to die off.  After setting up camp, we heard a Northern Pgymy-Owl calling down a steep ravine.  It was too dark to chase it and the terrain made things difficult to attempt chasing it.  Slate Creek is an area with a lot of steep ravines and slopes.  In my opinion, it adds to the area's beauty..

As it officially got dark, we got all of our owling stuff together, hopped in Josh's truck, and started to head back east from the trailhead to seek out owling locations.  The owls were our main focus of the trip as were a few other birds.  And of course by now, you all know the owls were dominating my brain over all the other birds.  Things got interesting quickly when I spied a Common Poorwill sitting on the road after starting our drive.

After watching the Poorwill sit there for a few minutes, the bird flew a short distance up a slope and sat there peacefully.  It allowed us to get some killer views and some good photos.

With me not having shots to brag about with this species in the past and with me being the thrill-seeker that I am, I couldn't help but climb the mountain to get level with the Common Poorwill.  Wow, what a cool bird this is, and wow, it can sure camouflage!

The three of us then continued east from where we saw the Poorwill and went to Forest Road 201-A to listen and look for Flammulated Owls as well as try for a seemingly longer shot in a Mexican Whip-poor-will.  The small stand of living pine trees who survived the 2012 Sunflower Fire along this road were key in 2014's owling efforts because they did attract a Flammulated Owl.  As we owled along this road in midst of a cold wind that started up, we didn't have any luck.  In fact, it was disappointing as it was said that there wouldn't be much in the way of wind according to the weather forecast.  As the wind started, it appeared to be getting worse, and it made things harder to hear.  It was also very cold out.  At this point, I was willing to owl in both Maricopa and Gila Counties.  After some time, we parked the truck on a ridge and walked up from where we parked and back down into a ravine area from where we parked.  The wind luckily died down after awhile.  Other than the stars, we were now walking in darkness...

County birding at Mount Ord and Slate Creek Divide can be challenging and frustrating because the county lines are close to each other in most spots along the road where most of the folks like to bird.  Once in the higher elevations at Slate Creek, one is in Gila County from the road and north, while birding in Maricopa County requires a hike up a ridge or down a drainage south to get into Maricopa County.  Although the road itself is Gila County, most of the time Maricopa County is within a stone throw away.  As we walked down the road from where we parked, we were at the top of a rather steep ravine that had Douglas fir and oak forest below us and which was obviously Gila County.  We were hoping for anything.  A chattering call we heard coming from the woods briefly reminded me of one of the Spotted Owl's contact calls.  I didn't hear it well enough to be sure.  And then a Flammulated Owl started calling in Gila County!  We were thrilled to hear a Flam calling regardless of what county it was in.  After walking towards the sound and getting to a spot where we were closer to the bird from the road, Josh and I decided to bushwhack down into the ravine to attempt a visual while Gordon decided to stay back on the road and listen.  Josh and I had a few good opportunities to see the Flam as it was calling from lower trees than the taller pines and firs that were around.  We missed our chances those times and the Flam then moved into taller Douglas firs.  Josh and I scanned and scanned and we couldn't turn up a visual.  As Caleb, Dominic, and I figured out how to find these small owls last week near the tops of ponderosa pine trees (see previous post), finding Flammulated Owls in Douglas fir is a different story.  An hour later, Josh and I were still looking.  Time can quickly fly by fast when scanning and scanning for Flams, and we didn't want Gordon to be standing up there all by himself for much longer.  As we called up to Gordon, he seemed to be enjoying himself.  When the time came around for Josh and I to finally head back up and abort our search, something interesting happened..

A Northern Saw-whet Owl called a few times in the distance, and we were happy to hear it.  It caused us to pause and listen for a few minutes.  After the Flammulated Owl had been perched so high in Douglas firs for so long, we then heard one on a shorter Douglas on our way out.  We felt like this was our chance.  It didn't take long to start feeling that sense of hopelessness in seeing this bird in the thick limbs and needle of a Douglas fir as we were scanning and scanning without any luck.  The owl appeared to be calling higher in the tree.  Sometimes this can be deceptive, and they can be higher than they actually sound, or lower than they actually sound.  Ventriloquist is the word for it!  As I worked my way slowly around the fir to get different angles, I still couldn't get a visual of Flam.  I then decided to go right under the trunk of the fir for what seemed to be a harder angle.  When I got to the angle I wanted, I looked up to see the FLAMMULATED OWL right above me!  I couldn't believe it.  In my head I thought the Flam was going to fly right after I got my eyes on it, but it didn't.  It just sat there!

I called Josh over immediately, and Josh got his first ever look at a Flammulated Owl!  This sighting immediately proved how challenging these small owls can be to locate.  Hearing them is no problem, but finding them is another.  It seems as if I'm learning something new about locating these owls every time I owl for them.

Flammulated Owls are closely related to Screech-Owls.  Like Screech-Owls, they have small ear tufts.  With Flams, they don't have their ear tufts raised as much when they are active at night.  Luckily, this guy put on a complete show for us and had his ear tufts raised for most of our observation!  Good grief, what an amazing bird.

With the hardcore effort Josh and I put into getting a look at this bird and to finally be rewarded was awesome.  At times the Flam continued calling right as we were looking at him.  He appeared to not even care about our presence.  Josh soon took a selfie of me with the owl.  See the Flam up there?

Josh and I started to snap dozens upon dozens of photographs of the Flam.  Here's some more..

Josh and I realized that Gordon couldn't miss out on this opportunity even though he wasn't crazy about walking and bushwhacking down the ravine.  When Josh told Gordon about the bird, Gordon said he wasn't going to come down.  A minute later, I called back up to Gordon and talked him into it with my never ending persuasive words.  While Josh kept his eye on Flam, I went up to assist Gordon on his walk down the ravine.  We went as fast as we could through reasonable terrain to get back to Josh, and luckily, Flam was still sitting right there.  Seeing the smile on Gordon's face as he looked up at this bird was epic.  It was a relief for me, I really didn't want Gordon to miss out on this owl.

The viewing fun continued...

During the observation, I also got to get a shot off of the Flams orange-ish scapular bars, which was cool to see for the first time.

Here is a short video I took of the Flam.  As we were watching him, he started to vocalize in front of us!

We then witnessed the Flam move to different branches no more than ten feet apart several times.  I believe he was probably in the hunting mood during this stretch of the night rather than his territorial broadcasting mood.  With us having lights and with moths (the Flam's favorite prey source) being attracted to lights, perhaps the Flam had his own strategy.  

Here Josh got a selfie with the Flam!

The Flam then started to work it's way higher into that Douglas fir before going out of sight.  Here's one more shot from this fantastic sequence, and in my opinion this shot shows the tiny size of the Flam better than the other ones do because the bird is more distant.

As we were about to head back up to the road, we were then interrupted by the Northern Saw-whet Owl that Josh and I heard while looking for the Flam.  The three of us quickly got to the calling Saw-whet and found it!  It was a lifer for Josh and it was Gordon's first ever look at one.  While this was going on with the Saw-whet calling away, the Flammulated Owl and two Great Horned Owls were also calling at the same time.  The ravine had turned into an Owl party.

While the Saw-whet wasn't as cooperative as the Flam, it was still an epic sighting to say the least and seeing these two guys see this bird that they both have basically never seen after getting the Flam the way they did really made things extra exciting.  Gosh, Saw-whets are cool.  This guy really had the "fat-faced" look to him.

As we left the Saw-whet in peace after it appeared nervous a few times, we headed back after spending a lot of time on the forested slope.  And to our surprise on the way out, we heard the Flam calling from another lower perch on a different tree.  We looked up and there he was again in a juniper!

NOTE:  I want to add that none of the three of us used flash photography at any time during our owl observations on this trip.  We use high ISO and flashlights (not beaming in the owl's face) to obtain the shots we get.  

After we got back up to the road, we were grateful enough for what we had.  Things got even better when we heard another Saw-whet Owl calling well west of our first Saw.  When we stopped and listened, we realized this second bird was calling from a ravine up on the tip of Maricopa County!  So Gordon and Josh did get Saw-whet as a Maricopa County bird.  The rest of the time we listened for Spotted Owls without luck.  Josh and I even hiked down the Maricopa County drainage after Gordon went to bed after midnight to see if we could spy one or hear one.  Without any further owl luck, Josh's first ever Painted Redstart sprung up from a hidden ground nest and landed in a tree in front of us.  I never thought I'd see a Painted Redstart in the dark.  And I never thought I would see someone get their lifer Painted Redstart that way.  Congrats Josh!  

Slate Creek Divide is always pleasant to wake up to.  I've camped out here my fair share of times over the last five years!

It started raining some during the night and the rain would come in spurts throughout the earlier stages of the morning.  As it was starting to get light out, the Northern Pygmy-Owl from the previous night was calling away.  Once it was light, Josh and I decided to track the bird down as it was still calling.  After some challenging navigation, Josh and I got to the spot of the owl and Josh quickly spied it.  It was the first time Josh has seen this species after getting his lifer the night before as a heard only!  Can you spy the Owl?

Josh and I got to spend some time enjoying this tiny owl, who is barely bigger than the Flammulated Owl.  I told Josh about how fierce Northern Pygmy-Owls can be, and Josh was quite shocked.  And this owl had the perfect overviews and perches for his hunting.

If you look at the size of the conifer cones on this tree in comparison to the owl, it shows the owl's small size!

We got to see the owl switch perches once as it continued to hunt for prey.  The owl turned it's head around several times to show off it's false "eye spots".

Another cool owl down for our trip!  The only one we now had left was the Spotted Owl...

With an inconsistent light rain falling down on us, we decided to start hiking down the dense drainages that go down into Maricopa County.  As I've said in a lot of my previous posts, the habitat in these drainages are amazing for a variety of forest birds, including Spotted Owls.  The drainages are also a very tough location to get photographs of most songbirds, because the Douglas fir dominated habitat is very thick and shady.

From the start we had some good birds.  Red-breasted Nuthatches were calling, a flock of noisy Mexican Jays flew through the woods, and Painted Redstarts were being seen often.  Many migrant Hammond's Flycatchers were also present.  As we made our way down the drainage, it was raining at times.  Some of it was enough for us to be concerned about our camera welfare.  As we came around a corner, I spied a small bird in a small Douglas fir flitting around, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher I think.  I raised my binoculars to look at that bird and as I did that, I thought I saw a flash of an Owl-like blob sitting nearby.  With that in mind I quickly took my binoculars down, and looked...

It was indeed an owl, and I had spotted a Spotted Owl!

Spying the owl the way I did was pretty funny. As the rain was coming down, the three of us were enjoying looks at this amazing creature with admiration.  Just like the previous three owls that were seen, this one was a big celebrity too.  It was a life bird for Josh and it was Gordon's first for Maricopa County.  We all enjoyed it for a few minutes in the rain while coming down the drainage, and we then enjoyed it for a few minutes in the sunlight coming back up the drainage.

Seeing Spotted Owls in an Arizona forest is a good thing.  Because this bird is a bio-indicator, it means that for a Spotted Owl be here, the forest has to be in good condition.  Amazingly, with all of the fires that Slate Creek Divide has suffered from, this threatened bird has still chosen to call it home and Slate Creek does still have very healthy forests.  Because this bird is threatened, the whereabouts of it's location will not be told.

As we have powerful zoom lenses on our cameras, that enabled us to get photographs of this owl from the drainage without getting closer.  Besides, the owl really didn't care about three grown human beings.  It took one glance at us and never looked at us again.

The three of us got to see all four of Arizona's night conifer owls in one trip, the Fantastic Four Arizona Coniferous Owl Sweep!  The Spotted Owl wasn't the only highlight of our thorough Maricopa County exploration in it's drainage areas and Mt. Peeley trail.  We found many lifers for Josh and a Dusky-capped Flycatcher Maricoper for Gordon.  Other highlights included numerous Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, Acorn and Hairy Woodpeckers, many passage migrant Hammond's (11) and Dusky (3) Flycatchers, 8 Dusky-capped Flycatchers (rare in Maricopa County, but a population breeds at Slate Creek Divide), 2 Plumbeous Vireos, Steller's Jay, several hundred Violet-green Swallows flying over the trailhead in groups at a time, Bridled Titmouse, all three nuthatches, Brown Creepers, Hermit Thrush, Virginia's, Yellow-rumped, Grace's, Black-throated Gray, Townsend's, and Wilson's Warblers; singing Black-chinned Sparrow, Green-tailed Towhee, Hepatic Tanager, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Bullock's Oriole passing through, Scott's Oriole, 5 Cassin's Finches, Pine Siskins, and more.  Because the habitat was very thick, I couldn't photograph any other birds well, but they sure were enjoyable!

My biggest highlight of the trip was the Flammulated Owl, but the Northern Saw-whet Owl, Northern Pygmy-Owl, and Spotted Owl were huge also.  The Fantastic Four of Slate Creek Divide!  Of course, the Common Poorwill was awesome but still right behind the owls.  Josh got a handful of lifers and Maricopers that he wanted to see.  Gordon had his first ever look at a Flam and his first good look at a Saw-whet and got three Maricopers:  Saw-whet Owl, Spotted Owl, and Dusky-capped Flycatcher!  That was a great ending to our successful birding and camping trip.  And with all the climbing and bushwhacking done, none of us got hurt!

On our way down from mountain coniferous forest and into juniper and chaparral lowlands, Josh and I enjoyed his lifer Gray Vireo, and it was my first Gray Vireo this year in Arizona and Maricopa County.

Thanks Josh and Gordon for an amazing trip!