Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Back to The One and Only Greenlee County

Hi Everyone,

During the course of four days, Gordon Karre and I covered the under-birded Greenlee County extensively.  The start of the trip came on the evening of May 11th, 2017, and after spending two full days in the County on May 12th and 13th, we then had the morning to bird on May 14th before heading back to Phoenix.  Greenlee County is awesome and is full of potential, and many of the birds we saw on this trip showed that potential that it needs to be covered a lot more.

We stayed in Duncan for the trip, which was our base as well as a location with many great birding spots nearby.  On May 11th, our first bird of the trip was a WESTERN KINGBIRD as we drove into Greenlee County on the US 70 in the evening.  After heading a few miles east on the 70 after getting into the County, we stopped at the entrance to a farm-like area on the south side of the 70 with desert habitat, and a decent view of the Gila River riparian corridor on the north side of the 70 at close to 3500' in elevation.  A SWAINSON'S HAWK perched on a roadside pole, and we had a handful of birds such as BLACK-CHINNED HUMMINGBIRD, WESTERN WOOD-PEWEE, CASSIN'S and WESTERN KINGBIRDS, BELL'S VIREO, BARN and CLIFF SWALLOWS, LUCY'S and YELLOW WARBLERS, BLACK-THROATED SPARROW, SUMMER TANAGER, and HOODED ORIOLE.  Following the first pull-off, we went to another pull-off, with this second one being in the town of Duncan by Wanda's Kitchen Restaurant.  It was here we were treated to COMMON BLACK-HAWK along the Gila River, as well as a handful LESSER NIGHTHAWKS hunting over agricultural fields and surrounding open areas in Duncan.

A Swainson's Hawk.  A handsome buteo of the west.  This one was leading off the birding trip to Greenlee County.  With the combinations of habitats and elevations that were going to be covered, this Hawk would be one of many new additions to my Greenlee County list.

After checking into a Duncan Hotel called Chaparral, we headed north up Highway 75 and then northeast up 78 into the Big Lue Mountains to do some owling.  As some of the weather forecasts showed wind in them at night, we figured this calm night would be good to owl for a while.  It turned out to be relatively pointless, as there wasn't any wind much on the trip.  The Big Lue Mountains, only 22 miles or so of driving from Duncan, consist of pine, oak, and juniper forest and are a pleasant place to bird.  Gordon and I detected a calling MEXICAN WHIP-POOR-WILL at Blackjack Campground in a 30 minute search.  After Black Jack, we went a further north a short distance to owl and nightjar Martinez Ranch Road where it intersects with Seep Spring Canyon after driving about a mile.  It was here that we heard COMMON POORWILLS on the surrounding ridges, and 3-4 ELF OWLS in the pine and oak woodlands.  On a past AZFO Expedition in 2014, Eric Hough's expedition recorded 10 Elf Owls in this area  Gordon and I had trouble getting views of the Elf Owls, but once we saw one flying near the upper levels of a tall ponderosa pine.  What was interesting to me was how high they stayed up and were calling in the ponderosa pines.  That would conclude our opening night on May 11th.  Other than night birds, we also got to see a Skunk, Gray Fox, Black-tailed Jackrabbits, and a cottontail rabbit performing a random straight-up jump that had to have had a vertical of four feet or so.

On May 12th, we had a very tiring day of birding as we left Duncan early and ventured far up north by taking the windy, slow, and seemingly long Highway 191 to bird Hannagan Meadow and the northern half of the Blue River.  Although long, windy, and slow, Highway 191 is a gorgeous route.  A Black Bear running along the highway as we turned a corner thought so too.  Both Mule Deer and Coue's White-tailed Deer were abundant.  Before reaching Hannagan Meadow, birds seen and heard along the way whether by quick stops or driving along the way included SHARP-SHINNED HAWK, ACORN WOODPECKER, MEXICAN JAY, HERMIT THRUSH, HORNED LARK, BLACK-THROATED GRAY WARBLER, SPOTTED TOWHEE, and HEPATIC TANAGER.  Here is a video of the Black Bear running along the highway:

We finally reached the Hannagan Meadow area just after sunrise.  This area is in the White Mountains and is Greenlee County's highest country out of the northern half of the County, which does consist of a lot of high elevations.  Hannagan Meadow has a lot of spruce-fir and aspen forests nearby at elevations of over 9000', which do host species such as American Three-toed Woodpecker, Dusky Grouse, Clark's Nutcracker and an occasional Gray Jay.   Gordon and I were hoping to find these species, but were especially hoping for Dusky Grouse out of the three.  Our first stop in the area was about five miles south of Hannagan Meadow, at KP Cienega Campground.  This area consisted of open meadow, and forest of spruce, fir, pine, and aspen.  Some of the forest was burned by the devastating 2011 Wallow Fire, which sadly burned a lot throughout the Greenlee County section of the White Mountains.  Most places in the Greenlee County section of the White Mountains have been affected by the fire.  It was here we were really hoping for Dusky Grouse, as several reports on eBird have had them right in the campground area or nearby.  We didn't get Grouse, but we were thrilled to hear the drumming of two AMERICAN-THREE TOED WOODPECKERS shortly after our arrival.  Other highlights included BROAD-TAILED HUMMINGBIRD, HAIRY WOODPECKER, a migrant SOLITARY VIREO that Gordon heard, numerous VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOWS, PYGMY NUTHATCH, BROWN CREEPER, abundant HOUSE WRENS, both RUBY-CROWNED and GOLDEN-CROWNED KINGLETS, WESTERN and MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRDS, RED-FACED WARBLER, GREEN-TAILED TOWHEE, and WESTERN TANAGER.  What was really interesting were a few SPOTTED TOWHEES singing and being at this elevation of over 9000' on a northwestern facing slope.  We assumed they were associating with the shrubby growth as a result of the fire.  Gordon spied a few Elk in the area to really cap off a great start of the day for not only birds, but for mammals too.

Spotted Towhee.  An odd spot for one to be at at over 9000' in elevation.  Recent Wallow Fire's re-emerging vegetation is probably the attractant.  

American Robin.  One of the most abundant songbirds in the White Mountains.

Red-faced Warbler at KP Cienega Campground.  Always a pleaser.

Elk at KP Cienega.

This picture, as well as the next two pictures going down, are of KP Cienega Campground, a beautiful location and a perfect place to start a day off at.

After KP Cienega, we ventured north to Forest Road 8312 (signed off as 25-B on Google Maps) to access the tiny Aker Lake, which is about three miles south of Hannagan Meadow.  This road traverses in a loop.  The northern fork is much more scenic of this road than the burned up south fork.  The northern fork also accesses Aker Lake much quicker than the south fork, both of which are accessed off of Highway 191.  Aker Lake is beautiful but very small.  The lake did attract plenty of VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOWS and 4-5 PURPLE MARTINS, with the latter entertaining Gordon and me.  Many surrounding forest birds were present, including another drumming THREE-TOED WOODPECKER.  This one was close to the lake, and Gordon and I walked up into the woods for a short distance to get a few great views of the bird.

Purple Martin feeding at Aker Lake.

American Three-toed Woodpecker

Three photographs of different scenes of Aker Lake.  The top shows the mixed woodlands, Gordon Karre, and Aker Lake.

For grits and shins, here is a video/audio of the American Three-toed Woodpecker drumming.

Once we got into Hannagan Meadow, we birded the Hannagan Meadow Campground as well as the Aker Lake Trail.  The Aker Lake Trail is accessed via Hannagan Meadow Campground, and goes for 3.5 miles to that previously visited location of ours.  In this area we had highlights of another THREE-TOED WOODPECKER, which was topped by a pair of DOWNY WOODPECKERS.  We got a few great views of the latter, which drummed in front of us a few times.  Showy GOLDEN-CROWNED KINGLETS were fun to observe along with the cast of the usual forest birds typical of spruce, pine, and aspen woodlands.

Golden-crowned Kinglet.  Always a welcome sight.

Downy Woodpecker (above, below)

Aker Lake Trail

Our final stop in the Hannagan Meadow area came from going about 1.5 miles into Forest Road 576.  We spent 1.5 hours here, and this area (at least it's beginning stretches) aren't affected by fire.  I walked some to Baike Spring, an area accessed off a fork road within the first mile of Road 576 with an abandoned cabin and two ponds in a large meadow.  Highlights here included WILD TURKEY, two more AMERICAN THREE-TOED WOODPECKERS, RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH, and RED-FACED WARBLER among the usual forest birds.

Gordon and I had a total of 5 American Three-toed Woodpeckers in the Hannagan Meadow area.  Most were detected by hearing their distinctive drumming call.  However, this one (above, below), was a silent female.  I happened to look up and see her sitting there.

Forest Road 576

Baike Spring

After Hannagan Meadow, we drove north on Highway 191 to access Red Hill Road, which traverses east and down in elevation to the Blue River at elevations roughly around 6000'.  After 13 miles of traveling down scenic Red Hill Road into the Blue River valley, we accessed the Blue River.  We mainly birding the Blue River north of this point.  Habitat here includes cottonwood and willow riparian, shrubby hillsides with oak and juniper, cliffs, pine and oak forest, as well as canyons with oak, pine, and fir.  At the Blue River is the community of Blue, which is mainly in the area south of Red Hill Road along Blue River Road.  There is even a post office further south.  North of Red Hill Road is more of Blue, including a school, library, and some private property.  The Blue River is highly under-birded of course, but it has a ton of potential.  Gordon and I worked our way north for six miles along Blue River Road where we would access our northern-most point along the River, which was Upper Blue Campground.  It was here that we detected two DUSKY-CAPPED FLYCATCHERS by hearing their mournful calls nearby.  We were able to get photos and sound recordings of them.  Although Dusky-capped Flycatchers are further south along 191 at Juan Miller and Granville Campgrounds north of Clifton, we were surprised to find them here.  At this point in Upper Blue Campground, we were very close to the northeastern tip of Greenlee County and the Blue River itself.  Further south from Upper Blue Campground and still in the Blue River's northern reaches, bird life was variable and included GREAT BLUE HERON, GAMBEL'S QUAIL, COMMON BLACK-HAWK, HAIRY WOODPECKER, GREATER PEWEE (by entrance to Blue School and Library), WESTERN-WOOD PEWEE, ASH-THROATED FLYCATCHER, STELLER'S JAY, BRIDLED TITMOUSE, BUSHTIT, PYGMY NUTHATCH, VIRGINIA'S, GRACE'S, RED-FACED, BLACK-THROATED GRAY, and YELLOW WARBLERS; YELLOW-BREASTED CHAT, COMMON YELLOWTHROAT, PAINTED REDSTART, SPOTTED TOWHEE, SUMMER, HEPATIC, and WESTERN TANAGERS, BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAK, BULLOCK'S ORIOLE, and plenty more.  The Blue River is highly scenic, and is a place I'd like to bird for several days in a row sometime.

Greater Pewee

Common Black-Hawk

Dusky-capped Flycatcher.  A big surprise at the Blue River's northern stretch.  Perhaps the furthest the species has been recorded in the northeastern direction in Arizona?

Blue River scenes (above and below)

Birds that Gordon and I saw to and fro on Red Hill Road in a variety of habitats going down into the Blue River included WHITE-THROATED SWIFT, PEREGRINE FALCON, GRAY FLYCATCHER, WOODHOUSE'S SCRUB-JAY, ROCK and CANYON WRENDS, PLUMBEOUS VIREO, WHITE-BREASTED and PYGMY NUTHATCHES, WESTERN BLUEBIRD, HERMIT THRUSH, TOWNSEND'S SOLITAIRE, BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHER, PAINTED REDSTART, and RUFOUS-CROWNED SPARROW.  We then made to long drive back to Duncan to conclude the day.  While driving south on 191 after leaving the Hannagan Meadow area, I was happy to see a male WILLIAMSON'S SAPSUCKER fly across the road, a woodpecker who avoided us while on foot.

This is why Red Hill Road is named Red Hill Road..

On May 13, we slept in quite and bit and didn't start birding until after sunrise in locations in and around Duncan.  And hey, this was Global Big Day!  The first stop Gordon and I made to start of the day was the epic Duncan Birding Trail.  Birds are everywhere along this trail, which can be followed on both sides of Highway 75 south of where a bridge crosses over the Gila River.  We birded this trail for over three hours, where we got 66 different species to start off our Global Big Day.  Our favorite highlight came from a few close up fly-bys by a MISSISSIPPI KITE.  It's been a long time since I had seen this elegant raptor, and it was the first time Gordon got to enjoy one outside of a distant fly-over bird he had in the past.  The sighting was really capped off later in the exploration when Gordon spied the Kite sitting at the top of a cottonwood right along the trail.  The rarest bird we had was a fly-by male ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAK who flew out of a mulberry tree that had many WESTERN TANAGERS and BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAKS also flying in and out of it.  The mulberries were in a neighborhood in Duncan just south of the Birding Trail, and songbirds were constantly flying back-and-fourth to the fruit trees and the Gila River.  Other highlights along the Duncan Birding Trail included a flock of 22 WHITE-FACED IBIS, COOPER'S HAWK, COMMON BLACK-HAWK, a GRAY HAWK (local in this area along the Gila River), 4 SWAINSON'S HAWK, GREATER ROADRUNNER, BROAD-TAILED and BLACK-CHINNED HUMMINGBIRDS, 6 WESTERN WOOD-PEWEE, 2 DUSKY FLYCATCHER, 16 VERMILION FLYCATCHER, BROWN-CRESTED FLYCATCHER, CASSIN'S and WESTERN KINGBIRDS, BELL'S VIREO, a CASSIN'S and 6 WARBLING VIREO, many CEDAR WAXWINGS, WILSON'S WARBLER, BLUE GROSBEAK, LAZULI and INDIGO BUNTING, YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD, and BULLOCK'S ORIOLE.

Cedar Waxwings at Duncan Birding Trail

Mississippi Kite.  This was the highlight bird of our trip.  It was Gordon's first ever time of getting a photograph and good look at one, and for me, it's been several years since I've seen a Mississippi Kite.  And it's a bird I've only seen a few times in my life prior to this one.

Swainson's Hawk looking on..

Vermilion Flycatcher flight show at Duncan Birding Trail

Another encounter with the Mississippi Kite..

Summer Tanager at Duncan Birding Trail

Gray Hawk, local in Duncan

The Duncan Birding Trail has a combination of river riparian, scrub, agriculture, and lines of bird attracting trees for it' habitat selection.  The latter comes from neighborhoods on the south border of the Trail.

At Chaparral Hotel, we got a few snacks before heading further south of Duncan.  Gordon spied our second MISSISSIPPI KITE of the day soaring to the south.  A calling INCA DOVE was also present.

We then went south for a few miles to a pond on the east side of US 70.  This pond is on private property, but is viewed easily from the road.  Gordon spied our third MISSISSIPPI KITE of the day, which was soaring to the west.  Minutes later, I spied a probable second kite, who was flying much lower to the ground.  We lost track of the first, so we don't know if this was the first or was a second bird.  The pond held a BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERON and MEXICAN MALLARD as well as RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD and an assortment of other nearby birds.  This pond can attract interesting birds, as it recently attracted a Neotropic Cormorant, which found by Karen Kludge and Terry Rosenmeier two weeks ago.  With Greenlee County being highly void of aquatic habitats, this pond is always worth a check if in the area.

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Another Mississippi...

From the pond, Gordon and I birded the desert habitat of Scordato Ranch Road a little further south and on the west side of US 70.  Our favorite highlight here were two male PYRRHULOXIAS.  The desert was filled with resident birds as well as passage migrants.  Other highlights included BROAD-TAILED HUMMINGBIRD, 2 WESTERN WOOD-PEWEE, HAMMOND'S and GRAY FLYCATCHERS, WARBLING VIREO, ORANGE-CROWNED and WILSON'S WARBLERS, and WESTERN TANAGER.

Pyrrhuloxia, another awesome Greenlee lifer!

We worked our way back north shortly to Railroad Wash Road, where highlights along the Gila River and agricultural lands included COMMON BLACK-HAWK, SWAINSON'S HAWK, another BROAD-TAILED HUMMINGBIRD (detected by hearing the distinctive sound of the male's trilling wings on these reports), COMMON and CHIHUAHUAN RAVENS, LARK SPARROW, EASTERN MEADOWLARK, and an assortment of other birds.

Common Black-Hawk hunting the Gila

After eating delicious lunch at the Ranch House Restaurant in Duncan, Gordon and I birded East Avenue in Duncan for about 50 minutes.  This street is filled with mulberry trees and many other trees, and it attracted many birds, both resident and migrant.  WESTERN TANAGERS and CEDAR WAXWINGS were everywhere in the mulberries.  I remembered where I saw the ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAK fly out of from this area while Gordon and I were on the Birding Trail.  When we got to that exact mulberry where the Grosbeak flew out of, we quickly re-found it again.  What a thrill it was, and this time we were able to get much more than a fly-by look.  This is an street that should be birded when in Duncan.  It goes along people's houses, but with careful behavior and consideration, I think birders would be welcome.

It's always good to catch up with a rarity that didn't pose the first time for photographs.  Rose-breasted Grosbeak everyone!

Following Duncan, we worked our way northeast into the Big Lue Mountains.

The Big Lues.  No one would know about the towering pines the mountain range holds from this POV.

Greenlee County is full of highways with twists and turns.  I love that aspect of it!

We decided to bird on the New Mexico side of it for 45 minutes along Harden Cienega Road, which was fun.  Back in the Arizona side, we birded Coal Creek Campground, BlackJack Campground, and Martinez Ranch Road before dark.  Coal Creek had highlights of ACORN WOODPECKER, HUTTON'S VIREO, GRACE'S WARBLER, PAINTED REDSTART, and HEPATIC TANAGER.  Black Jack Campground held a productive variety of birds with 30 species, which is quite good for a late afternoon visit.  Gordon spied a BRIDLED TITMOUSE flying out of a tiny cavity in a pine tree, which upon investigation turned out to be the bird's nest after we watched it squeeze into the cavity again.  It was very impressive to see!  Other highlights at Blackjack included OLIVE-SIDED FLYCATHER, 2 GREATER PEWEE (likely a pair associating), GRAY FLYCATCHER, 2 HUTTON'S VIREO, MEXICAN JAY, BUSHTIT, WHITE-BREASTED and PYGMY NUTHATCHES, GRACE'S, BLACK-THROATED GRAY, and 2 TOWNSEND'S WARBLERS; PAINTED REDSTART, HEPATIC and WESTERN TANAGERS, and BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAK.  Birding Martinez Ranch Road in the waning hours of daylight produced a big highlight for us in hearing three different MONTEZUMA QUAIL.  To this day, I have only had a visual on this quail once, dating all the way back to 2004.  This quail certainly knows how to avoid me, and it's not that I haven't tried to see them...

Olive-sided Flycatcher

Bridled Titmouse nest.

Our Global Big Day concluded after an hour of night birding.  We had a MEXICAN WHIP-POOR-WILL in Coal Creek where a few COMMON POORWILLS could also be heard, and single ELF OWLS at two locations:  one was along Highway 78 just south of Coal Creek Campground and the other was in Seep Spring Canyon in a quick stop along Martinez Ranch Road.  Surprisingly no Flams.  Our Big Day total for Greenlee County was 107 species.  Here is a recording of Mexican Whip-poor-will.

On our final day of the trip, May 14th, we went through the towns Clifton and Morenci to the northwest of Duncan to explore the areas around the well known Morenci copper mine.  Heading out of Duncan we saw a GRAY HAWK perched by the Gila River Bridge just north of the Duncan Birding Trail.  Our first destination of the day was scenic Lower Eagle Creek.  Around climbing down and down into Eagle Creek, we birded along the chaparral, juniper, and desert habitats along Lower Eagle Creek Road.  We were glad to find birds true to that habitat such as GRAY VIREO, BLACK-CHINNED SPARROW, and SCOTT'S ORIOLE.  Along this road we also had GREATER ROADRUNNER, WHITE-THROATED SWIFT, CASSIN'S KINGBIRD, ROCK, BEWICK'S and CACTUS WRENS; BLACK-TAILED GNATCATCHER, CRISSAL THRASHER, BLACK-THROATED SPARROW, and RUFOUS-CROWNED SPARROW.

Lower Eagle Creek didn't hold anything unusual in the 1.5 hours spent there, but the scenery there is incredible.  Typical desert, lowland riparian, and canyon birds were found, with the best being a pair of COMMON BLACK-HAWKS.

Gray Vireo along Lower Eagle Creek Road

White-throated Swift, Lower Eagle Creek

Summer Tanager, Lower Eagle Creek

Canyon Wren, Lower Eagle Creek

Common Black-Hawk, Lower Eagle Creek.  We saw many Black-Hawks on our trip..

Lower Eagle Creek canyon (above, below)

After birding the Eagle Creek Area, we birded along the San Francisco River for awhile by Riverside Park in Clifton.  We were greeted by 4 rather tame Bighorn Sheep in the park.  Our best find here was an ANNA'S HUMMINGBIRD.  It seems weird to say that about an Anna's Hummingbird, but they seem to be very scarce throughout Greenlee County.  The San Francisco River is another vast area in Greenlee County that can take a lot of time to bird.

Bighorn Sheep by San Francisco River in Clifton

Anna's Hummingbird (above, below)

Our final stop of the trip came from the Gila Box Riparian NCA, where the Old Safford Bridge is.  This is only 4 miles west of Highway 191 and not far from Clifton at all.  Cottonwood and willow riparian line the Gila River here, and that is surrounded by desert and mesquite stands.  We had about 50 minutes to explore this spot, but it looked to be completely awesome beyond what we were able to explore.  Miles upon miles of riparian habitat are in this area.  Gordon and I were able to pull out 31 species here in very late morning, where highlights included WILLOW FLYCATCHER, MACGILLIVRAY'S WARBLER, and an assortment of other birds regular to this habitat.

Willow Flycatcher (above, below).  This Willow Flycatcher was the last addition I would get for my Greenlee County list on this trip.  My list in Greenlee went from 132 species to 181 species in the three days of birding.  

Summer Tanager, Gila River

Gila Box Riparian NCA

The trip to Greenlee was awesome and Gordon and I covered the County from nearly north to south along various points and hotspots.  The total combined species total for our trip was 145 species.  We both agreed the bird of the trip were the Mississippi Kites, because they are too cool.  I highly encourage anyone reading to visit and bird this fun county.  With how far east it is, who knows what it might get vagrant wise if it was covered regularly.  Thank you Gordon for a fun trip!

Good Birding,

Tommy DeBardeleben (Glendale, Arizona)

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