Sunday, February 19, 2017

Exploring Greenlee County, Arizona

During the course of the past three days, starting on Thursday night, February 16th, 2017, and ending on Saturday night, February 18th, 2017, Caleb Strand, Joshua Smith, and I, formed a birding team and decided to focus our birding efforts entirely on Greenlee County.  Greenlee County is Arizona's second smallest county, and it is by far the most under-birded county in the state (as well as the least populated county by people in Arizona).  The latter aspect of it fired us up to bird the county extensively where two days of time would allow, and we covered a lot of ground and birding locations.  The goal of the trip was to bird of course and start to build our Greenlee County lists and locations to bird and visit, and to more importantly, gather data for this rarely birded county.  Prior to this trip, Caleb and Josh had never been to Greenlee County and I have only been there a few times where I birded the area directly north of the Blue River as well as Hannagan Meadow.

I've seen this sign very few times in my life...why does it look so blurry....are we for real?

For those who don't know, Greenlee County, although very small, has a significant amount of different habitats, with elevation ranging from just over 3,000 to over 9,000 in the Hannagan Meadow area of the White Mountains.  On this trip, we covered many different habitats but didn't get too far north enough to be in the White Mountains.  Yeah this report will be long, but because Greenlee is vastly under-birded, I'm gonna write my butt off.

Caleb, Josh, and I left the Phoenix area around 6 P.M. on Thursday night and arrived in Greenlee County after 10 P.M.  We started owling immediately when we got into Greenlee County.

Three pumped birders.  Tommy D, Joshua Smith, Caleb Strand

It wasn't long before we had our first bird of the trip, a GREAT HORNED OWL.  We stayed in the town of Duncan, right off of the US 70.  After getting situated, we traveled a short distance to the Duncan Birding Trail, perhaps the county seat of birding hotspots in Greenlee County.  Here we would owl for about an hour, and our owling efforts were rewarded quickly.  Here at the Birding Trail we quickly had a second GREAT HORNED OWL, a pair of cooperative and up-close-for-viewing WESTERN SCREECH-OWLS, and a stunning BARN OWL calling and flying overhead several times.  As we shined our flashlights in the air, we could see that the Barn Owl was a ghostly adult male and almost looked pure white underneath.  From the Birding Trail, we ventured south of Duncan into Franklin, where we tried owling the agricultural fields along Railroad Wash Road for close to a half-hour in hopes of finding more Barn Owls and perhaps a Short-eared Owl.  We didn't have luck for owls there, but Caleb found a roosting RED-TAILED HAWK, which was quite funny.  In preparation for our first full day of birding Greenlee County, we got to sleep after two owling stops.

On Friday, February 17th, we covered a lot of ground, from the riparian, agricultural fields, and Chihuahuan desertscrub and grasslands around Duncan and Franklin all the way up to the coniferous forests in the Big Lue Mountains.  Most of the day, we were near New Mexico and even crossed into the state several times.

We immediately started birding from our Duncan hotel the second we went outside.  Birds were everywhere.  Our first stop of the day was a no-brainer, the Duncan Birding Trail.  We were only staying a half-mile away from this spot, and because it is Greenlee County's top birding hotspot, we figured why not start the trip out at a place like this.  The Gila River flows all along the Duncan Birding Trail, where habitat consists of cottonwood and willow riparian area.  Water levels were extremely high and fast-flowing.  It is also surrounded by agricultural fields and rural areas.

Caleb and Josh searching the Gila River

Gila River along Duncan Birding Trail

Riparian and agricultural habitats along the Duncan Birding Trail

Birds were in abundance here as we expected they would be, and we had 52 species in just over two hours of birding.  Highlights here included:  a male and female pair of WOOD DUCKS (first eBird record for Greenlee), 3 AMERICAN WIGEON, 18 MALLARDS that consisted of 16 Northern, a pure Mexican, and a Mexican integrade, a flock of 25 GREEN-WINGED TEAL, 5 COOPER'S and 11 RED-TAILED HAWKS, 96 SANDHILL CRANE in the agricultural fields, 7 WHITE-WINGED DOVE, 2 GREATER ROADRUNNER, MERLIN (which would be a first eBird record for Greenlee), PEREGRINE and PRAIRIE FALCONS, 3 VERMILION FLYCATCHER, 2 HUTTON'S VIREO, NORTHERN ROUGH-WINGED SWALLOW, 43 WESTERN BLUEBIRD, CRISSAL THRASHER, abundant WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW numbers that we estimated to be of about 650 birds in the mile we covered (which we mostly Gambel's but did have several Dark-lored subspecies mixed in), two races of SONG SPARROW (fallax and montana/merrilli), 31 LINCOLN'S SPARROW, 2 GREEN-TAILED TOWHEE, and WESTERN and EASTERN MEADOWLARKS.

After hearing Sandhill Cranes give their piercing prehistoric call in some nearby fields, this trio flew right past us at a close distance while we were on the Duncan Birding Trail.

A cooperative Crissal Thrasher on the Duncan Birding Trail

Cooper's Hawk on Duncan Birding Trail

One of many Gambel's Quail on Duncan Birding Trail

From the Duncan Birding Trail, we then went as far south as we would go for the day, which was to the areas south of Duncan at Franklin along the US 70 which would quickly access New Mexico.  The main draw of this immediate area was Railroad Wash Road, where an Upland Sandpiper was found in July 2016.  Before we would hit Railroad Wash Road, we birded a roadside pond owned by a private residence on the east side of the US 70.  This pond is always worth a check in the area.  AMERICAN COOTS and a MEXICAN MALLARD where the only waterbirds present, but the immediate area held highlights that included two sapsuckers in pine trees that surrounded the pond that concluded a definite RED-NAPED SAPSUCKER, AMERICAN KESTREL, LOGGERHEAD SHRIKE, VERDIN, and CRISSAL THRASHER.

From just south of the pond along the 70, we accessed Railroad Wash Road, where we would take Railroad Wash Road east to County Line Road (which traverses both Greenlee County and Hidalgo County, New Mexico), County Line Road south to Franklin Road, and then Franklin Road back west to the 70.  Habitats covered along this area included riparian along the Gila River, fields, and desert scrub.

Railroad Wash Road

Josh and Caleb looking across the Gila River from Railroad Wash Road

Highlights in this area included 4 NORTHERN HARRIER in one small spot with tall grassland habitat,190 SANDHILL CRANE, GREATER ROADRUNNER, LOGGERHEAD SHRIKE, 5 CHIHUAHUAN RAVEN (identified by higher calls than Common Ravens and also by smaller size than CORA; we had a view of both species perched side-by-side in a Raven-filled cottonwood), VESPER and SAVANNAH SPARROWS, and both WESTERN and EASTERN MEADOWLARKS.

More and more Sandhill Cranes along Railroad Wash Road

From Railroad Wash and Franklin Roads, we then went further south on the 70 very close to New Mexico and accessed another road on the west side of the 70, called Scordato Ranch Road, a primitive dirt road filled with desert scrub and semi-desert grassland.  This road eventually traverses into New Mexico, but we stayed on the Arizona side of things.  The habitat along this area looks good for Scaled Quail and perhaps Bendire's Thrasher or even Short-eared Owl in the grassland areas further west of the immediate road.  A half-hour's worth of birding resulted in common desert birds such as 4 VERDIN, 2 BLACK-TAILED GNATCATCHER, 11 BLACK-THROATED SPARROW, ABERT'S TOWHEE, as well as CRISSAL THRASHER, 4 BREWER'S SPARROW, and an awesome highlight of 3 SAGEBRUSH SPARROW.  Two of the Sagebrush Sparrows were singing.

Caleb sure knows how to dodge bullets.  Josh and I have good shots on us too.  The Boy can do it all...

Chihuahuan desert scrub and grassland habitat along Scordato Ranch Road.  The birds weren't cooperative for my camera, including the Sagebrush Sparrow I was trying to photograph.

After birding the locations south of Duncan around Franklin, we then went back north into Duncan, and took Highway 75 north from Highway 70 and birded at a few stops around Duncan north of the Gila River that included Old Virden Road and the Stagecoach Loop.  Along these roads we had highlights of 195 more SANDHILL CRANE and a nice flock of 45 LARK BUNTING.  At one point, Caleb saw a flock of about 60 HORNED LARK flying in the distant fields, surprisingly the only HOLA any of us detected the entire trip.

Lark Buntings in Duncan

We continued north of Duncan up Highway 75 towards the three way junction of Highway 75, 78, and 191.  Along the way, we scoured potential habitats to bird in the future along Apache Grove and the York Valley.  Habitats consisted of more and more agricultural fields and land, desert scrub, and endless riparian habitat along the Gila River.  One could bird this area for days, but not only two days, so we kept it brief.  We did add 40 more Sandhill Cranes along this stretch.

Once we got to the three way Highway Junction, we would head north-east on Highway 78 towards the Big Lue Mountains.  Before we headed off completely, we scrutinized a high soaring RED-TAILED HAWK and Caleb spied WHITE-THROATED SWIFTS near the hawk.  In midst of the swifts, he spied another swift that appeared to be either a Chimney or Vaux's Swift.  Josh and I weren't able to get on the interesting one.  25 distant swallows were also flying around nearby, but were unfortunately too far away to identify.

Highway 78-it goes to awesome places!

Once we traveled northeast on Highway 78, we were amazed at the scenery as we rapidly increased elevation into the Big Lue Mountains.  Juniper covered hills deserved a stop along the way, and we added species such as WOODHOUSE'S SCRUB-JAY, CANYON TOWHEE, RUFOUS-CROWNED SPARROW, and SPOTTED TOWHEE to our trip.

Memorable pulloff.  Several trip birds in one stop..

Canyon Towhee

From there we wanted to get into the pine and oak forests of the Big Lue Mountains in the Apache National Forest, which is a very under-birded area and mountain range in Arizona.  Our first stop was at the Blackjack Canyon Campground and Picnic Area.  This area was immediately active with pine and oak birds.  In 2014, Eric Hough led an Arizona Field Ornithologist Expedition in this area, and Caleb, Josh, and I were very impressed with his report, which inspired us to cover this area.  Eric Hough wrote on his summary of the expedition, an informative description of this range's high elevations which I'll quote here:

"The focus of our survey efforts on this expedition were the Big Lue Mountains, a small mountain range at the southern tip of the Apache National Forest, situated south of the White Mountains and just north of the classic southeastern AZ "sky island" ranges. From desert-scrub and semi-desert grassland at the base of the mountains, the life zones proceed up through chaparral to pine-oak-juniper forest topping at around 7,000 ft. elevation on the tallest hills. The vegetation in the Big Lue Mountains is an overlap of plant species found in both the "Sky Islands" and White Mountains/ Mogollon Rim regions, with dominant tree species including ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa), Chihuahuan pine (P. leiophylla), two-needled Colorado pinyon pine (P. edulis) and apparent three-needled Mexican pinyon pines (P. cembroides), alligator juniper (Juniperus deppeana), and several oak species including silverleaf (Quercus hypoleucoides), netleaf (Q. rugosa), gray (Q. grisea), Emory (Q. emoryi), Arizona white (Q. arizonica), and Gambel (Q. gambelii)"-Eric Hough.

Blackjack Canyon Campground

Once at Blackjack we birded the campground, north of the campground, and then further east into canyons in the area where there was flowing water in most of the area.  1.5 hours of birding the pines and oaks of Blackjack resulted in highlights of 2-3 ACORN WOODPECKER, 2 RED-NAPED SAPSUCKER, 1 HAIRY WOODPECKER, 5 MEXICAN JAY, 4 MOUNTAIN CHICKADEE (which we didn't think of at the time as a notable bird, but Molly Pollock told me they haven't been recorded in this range prior to our visit on eBird, I don't know if anyone else has found them in the past, perhaps they winter in the range?), a BRIDLED TITMOUSE, 12 WHITE-BREASTED and 18 PYGMY NUTHATCH, 2 GOLDEN-CROWNED KINGLET (another eBird first to the range pointed out by Molly, which Josh was able to get a diagnostic photograph of), 5 OLIVE WARBLER (2 adult males and 3 female types; the female types were noted seen by Caleb traveling together in a group), and about 20 DARK-EYED JUNCOS (most of which were the Gray-headed race but Caleb did pick out 2 of the similar but bi-colored bill Red-backed race).  One of the coolest aspects of the area was a flowing creek that was dammed up at the end, which may have been what Eric said was White Mule Creek on his write up of the area.

Gray-headed Dark-eyed Juncos

Olive Warbler male

From Blackjack Campground, we went further north a short distance to Martinez Ranch Road to bird a canyon along Martinez Ranch Road called Seep Spring Canyon.  This was another spot we were inspired to visit due to Eric's write up.  Seep Spring Canyon was beautiful, and we spent over an hour at the location walking up the canyon probably 0.7 mile.  An active creek flowed along the entire canyon and we had to cross the creek multiple times.

Seep Spring Canyon-what a neat place.

I could visualize Montezuma Quail coming down through this grass anytime..

Looking down into Seep Spring Canyon

As we were following the trail, we came upon the first crossing rather quickly.  Caleb was being loud, having fun, and was even screaming as he was crossing the creek.  I almost fainted when I looked just past Caleb to see an adult NORTHERN GOSHAWK sitting in an oak calmly.


Josh and I had yet to cross the creek, and there was this Northern Goshawk, just sitting there, seemingly unfazed by our presence.  I told Caleb to stop and not move.  The Goshawk continued to sit there and be unfazed by our presence, and as I crossed the creek, it didn't mind me either.

Seeing a Northern Goshawk do this does not happen very often at all, unless it wants to claw people who venture too close to it's nesting site!

Despite a screaming Caleb and a capacity of three approaching men that would usually make a Gos retreat for the hills, this bird didn't seem to care.  

After a few minutes, the Goshawk flew off a short distance to another spot along the trail and creek.  It once again didn't care about our presence, and the three of us admired this gorgeous bird at a close distance, even close to eye level.

I was probably about twenty feet away from this magnificent raptor during these photos.

Caleb even snapped a few pictures of me with the Goshawk, a "selfie" I didn't think I would ever get.

Something I never thought would happen, a selfie with a Northern Goshawk.  Only in Greenlee County.....

The Goshawk was molting into nearly complete adult plumage, as it had some remains of it's brown juvenile feathers.  Interestingly, the Goshawk appeared to be almost "black-backed", which may be of a subspecies described as the apache subspecies of Northern Goshawk, which is darker than the nominate and widespread North American subspecies.  The apache race is said to range in southern Arizona and New Mexico and south into Mexico.  Caleb, Josh, and I probably won't have another experience this close with a NOGO for the remainder of our lives, unless it's of one attacking us if we accidentally and bloodily stumble into a nest area.

We hiked further up the creek in hopes of finding potential Montezuma Quail in good-looking habitat without luck.  Other highlights here included 7 ACORN WOODPECKER, 9 MEXICAN JAY, 2 more MOUNTAIN CHICKADEE, and 2 BRIDLED TITMOUSE.

A short stop at Coal Creek Campground right before New Mexico in similar habitats looked promising but the bird activity was low as the daylight was fading.  On the way back down toward Duncan we stopped at Blackjack Overlook on 78, which is an eBird hotspot.  WHITE-THROATED SWIFT and CANYON WREN highlighted this stop, one of our last in a busy day of birding.

Above two pictures:  Coal Creek Campground and area

Caleb and Josh at Blackjack Lookout

To read Eric Hough's write up of his May AZFO expedition to the Big Lue Mountains (as well as more of the Gila River in Greenlee County), click on the link here, it's well worth the read:

On February 18th, 2017, Caleb, Josh and I got off to another early start and had another long birding day, just as long as the previous day, before heading back west to Phoenix after dark.  We had plans to bird along Highway 191 from Clifton to the south and then the forested mountains to the north with the northern limit of the trek being Juan Miller Campgrounds.  As we made our way toward Clifton on 191, we made a quick stop at a desert area to add birds to the trip which were CURVE-BILLED THRASHER and CACTUS WREN.  Once in Clifton, which is the county seat of Greenlee County, I was very impressed with the mine there, the mining community and the scenery that went along with it.  The Morenci Mine is the largest copper mine in North America, as well as one of the largest in the world.  Once one officially gets into Morenci, there are a few ponds at a treatment plant that have some reeds in them.  One eBird report had decent water bird numbers on it in the past, but we weren't so fortunate, because there wasn't an avian soul on any of the water.  We made our way past the mine to Lower Eagle Creek Road.  Once at the junction of Lower Eagle Creek Road and 191, we looked southeast down into Silver Basin to check a large lake within the Freeport-McMoRan mine property.  The lake seems to have good water in it, and it has willow trees growing around it in places, and shockingly, it was also deprived of waterbirds.  Although we didn't have birds, I'm mentioning these spots so they can be kept in mind for the future.

We then drove down Lower Eagle Creek Road to access Lower Eagle Creek, which was our most anticipated stop of the day.  Lower Eagle Creek is a gorgeous and picturesque riparian area surrounding by tall cliffs and canyons, probably one of the neatest places we've seen in Arizona.  The riparian area was dominated by willow, cottonwood, and sycamore, and there were some mesquite groves nearby.

Lower Eagle Creek is worth a trip for the scenery alone.

Although the bird diversity wasn't huge, we did have several awesome highlights here.  Those highlights included 2 WHITE-THROATED SWIFT, a first-year male YELLOW-BELLIED SAPSUCKER, GRAY FLYCATCHER, 4 HUTTON'S VIREO, 17 BRIDLED TITMOUSE, 11 CANYON WREN, 2 HERMIT THRUSH, our first 2 ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER of the trip, and 2 PAINTED REDSTART (perhaps this species winters regularly in the riparian habitats around Clifton and Duncan).

One of two Painted Redstarts in Lower Eagle Creek.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.  Note the buffy tones in it's widely barred back, indicative of a young bird.  Other sapsuckers won't show a trait of any juvenile characteristics at this time of the year.

On the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, note the complete black border around the small red area on the throat.

After birding Lower Eagle Creek, we made a few stops along Lower Eagle Creek on the way out, where we birding juniper, desert scrub, and chaparral habitats.  Highlights included WOODHOUSE'S SCRUB-JAY, BRIDLED and JUNIPER TITMOUSE, BUSHTIT, ROCK and CANYON WRENS, a singing SAGE THRASHER, CANYON TOWHEE, and RUFOUS-CROWNED SPARROW.

Juniper Titmouse on Lower Eagle Creek Road.

After the Lower Eagle Creek area, we made our way further north and drove for over an hour into the Apache National Forest to access our northernmost birding spot of the day, the Juan Miller Campgrounds.  I don't know for sure and I should know, but this area may be the southern tip of the White Mountains.  As we drove along the Highway, one of the most common birds in the high elevations were MEXICAN JAYS.

The three of us were very impressed with the mixed forested habitat at the Juan Miller Campgrounds while we birded it for just over an hour.  This area consisted of pine, oak, and sycamore.  I would love to bird it in May.  Highlights included 3 ACORN WOODPECKER, 2 HAIRY WOODPECKER, 6 MEXICAN JAY, 2 BROWN CREEPER, and a flock of 18 PINE SISKIN.

Juan Miller Campgrounds

While working our way back south on 191 from Juan Miller Road, we made some stops at coniferous habitats on the way back down.  One productive stop was when we stumbled into Drainage Deez Nuts, a drainage area with pine, Douglas fir, sycamore, and oak.  Drainage Deez Nuts didn't seem too productive on one side of the highway, but on the other activity really jumped up.  Caleb scanned a DARK-EYED JUNCO group to find a surprising YELLOW-EYED JUNCO in the mix.  The three of us worked to get photos of this bird and it eventually came to the side of the highway and sat in the open, allowing us to document it well.  Greenlee County doesn't have any prior Yellow-eyed Junco reports on eBird, I'm not sure if anyone else has found them in the County.  The Boy sure finds some awesome birds!

Yellow-eyed Junco in Greenlee County, likely a first Greenlee County record.

The Yellow-eyed Junco highlight was also joined by highlights of 2 ACORN WOODPECKER, 8 MEXICAN JAY, 2 MOUNTAIN CHICKADEE, RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH, and 2 OLIVE WARBLERS.  One of the 2 Olive Warblers was a stunning male, who gave us up close and incredible views while we were standing on Highway 191 above Drainage Deez Nuts.

Olive Warbler male at Drainage Deez Nuts.

We then went a short distance down the Highway and birded Granville Campground for a few minutes to land 4 ACORN WOODPECKER, 4 STELLER'S JAY, 4 MEXICAN JAY, CANYON WREN, and another OLIVE WARBLER.

After making our way slowly back to Clifton, we decided to bird the San Francisco River as we had now reached the late afternoon.  We birded the Frisco Avenue side of the River mainly, covering riparian habitat along the river.

San Francisco River in Clifton

Activity wasn't very high at this point and time of the day as it was nearing dusk, but we did have COMMON MERGANSER, SHARP-SHINNED HAWK, 38 WHITE-THROATED SWIFTS, and Caleb managed to see a WILSON'S SNIPE.

Common Merganser on San Francisco River in Clifton.

White-throated Swifts flying over Clifton

The coolest highlight here was a herd of BIGHORN SHEEP, was was an overdue mammal lifer for me.

It's about time, Tommy...

Our final stop of our Greenlee County birding trip and expedition came from Highway 78, just east of the three way intersection of Highways 191, 75, and 78.  We birded a desert scrub and grassy area just off of the highway that turned out to have a lot of bird life in it.  Several tanks were along the stretch also and were surrounded by mesquite.  A few of the tanks contained a small pond.  The small ponds were enough to attract a flock of 13 GREEN-WINGED TEAL.  In this area we also had LOGGERHEAD SHRIKE, ROCK and BEWICK'S WRENS, 2 CRISSAL THRASHERS, BREWER'S, WHITE-CROWNED, BLACK-THROATED, and VESPER SPARROWS; and both WESTERN and EASTERN MEADOWLARKS.

Our last stop, minutes before our Greenlee County birding expedition would end.  What a fantastic trip it was!

As our trip came to a close, Caleb, Josh, and I had had a great time birding and think the trip was a great success for the three of us.  With the three of us combined, we detected 106 species over the two days of birding in Greenlee County.  Caleb had all 106, and Josh and I had 104, missing Caleb's Wilson's Snipe and Horned Larks.  We had a few misses on the trip that we consider surprising that we missed, such as a lack of any heron species, no Ferruginous Hawks in all the fields and grassy areas, a few other birds, and most surprising of all, no Rock Pigeons (not like we really care anyways about that).  Greenlee County doesn't have many sources of open water such as ponds or lakes, so it's very tough to find waterbirds here.  The bird of the trip goes out to the Northern Goshawk.  The rarest bird of the trip was the Yellow-eyed Junco, which is probably a first Greenlee County record.  We found three first eBird records for the County:  Wood Duck, Merlin, and Yellow-eyed Junco.

Bird of the trip:  Northern Goshawk

Concluding, Greenlee County is an epic county that needs to be covered more often.  There is a lot to be discovered in it, and there are many habitats to bird in.  I highly recommend Greenlee County birding.  Thanks to my awesome friends Caleb Strand and Joshua Smith for making this an epic trip, you guys rock!

Good Birding,

Tommy DeBardeleben (Glendale, Arizona)