Saturday, September 22, 2018

Gila County: Two Epic Birds

My last post recapped three trips to Gila County that were extremely fun for the most part.  Each trip had it's exciting moments.  The biggest loss was finding the first Jaeger of my life with distant looks on San Carlos Lake.  It was even on the Gila County side of the lake, and in the right spot.  I goofed up my chances at getting better looks at the bird, and I couldn't relocate it after I initially saw it.  For some reason, I thought it was over, but...

A few days after, Babs Buck went out to the lake and saw the Jaeger.  She had rather distant photos of the bird floating on the water, but structure-wise, it did not look right for Pomarine Jaeger.  And by the views I saw and a field mark I saw of the bird while I did observe it, it wasn't a Long-tailed Jaeger either.  That would leave us with Parasitic Jaeger as our main option.  I felt a lot better about the sighting I had, and it got even better when Dave Stesjkal, Mark Stevenson, and Molly Pollock went out to San Carlos Lake and confirmed it was a Parasitic Jaeger with Dave's photos.  It was exciting that the bird was still at the lake the day before my next Gila County trip, and a day that I was planning to go to San Carlos Lake again.  The Parasitic Jaeger quickly became my biggest target of the trip.  I wanted extensive looks at it, and I wanted to watch it and study it up close.

Dave, Mark, and Molly also found two other birds that would be Gila lifers for me that I was targeting:  American Redstart at Tufa Stone Tank and a Pyrrhuloxia at the San Carlos Sewage Ponds.  On September 19th, 2018, I started my day off early at Tufa Stone Tank with that American Redstart as my main target.  I had 64 species at the Tank during this time, my first time in four visits that I got under 70 species.  Despite a good effort that I put in, I wasn't able to relocate the American Redstart.  But an interesting call note that I heard in some dense vegetation could have been it.  Regardless, birding Tufa Stone Tank was a good occasion once again.  Highlights included Dickcissel and the continuing Grasshopper Sparrow for a third straight week, as well as the Tank's first known Semipalmated Plover.

After Tufa, I made a quick stop at the San Carlos Sewage Ponds to try for the Pyrrhuloxia.  No luck on that.  I thought, "Oh no, 0 for 2 on targets.  That leaves me with one target left, the Parasitic Jaeger.  If I can go 1 for 3 with it being the bird I land, that completes the trip".  About an hour later while at San Carlos Lake, I was scanning the same stretch of water repeatedly where I first caught sight of the Jaeger the previous week.  I wasn't having luck there, and I decided to go to another viewpoint that was about a half mile west and one that would put me closer the the water.  As I got to the spot, I had a great view of the lake, and with my naked eye, I saw that wanted shape close to the shore.  Right when I got there and before I could even get out of my truck..

I can remember saying, "oh shoot" and I quickly got out to observe the Parasitic Jaeger.  After snapping a few photographs, the Jaeger, along with hundreds of other birds, started to take flight.  I started to snap away.

The Jaeger seemed to stay up awhile, and learning from that valuable lesson from the previous week, I made sure to get scope looks of the bird in flight, take some pictures of it in flight, and once it would land on the water, keep good tabs on it.  And it didn't take long for the Jaeger to start harassing the heck out of gulls.

After I had some good looks from where I was at of the bird as it was in flight and getting some distant flight photos, I saw that the Jaeger was swimming very regularly off of a spit of land that carried out onto the lake for a good distance.  I decided to take a hike down to the spot to get closer and in hopes of the Jaeger flying closer.  The bird stayed on the water for a long time, and drifted off from the Pinal County waters into the Gila County waters while I was watching it.  From this point, Gila County came in further from the north and took up more of the lake from this point, limiting Pinal County waters.  I loved this spot on the lake because of that :)

After about thirty minutes, I got bored with the bird distantly floating out on the water.  As I looked over some of my pictures, I looked back up to see that it had left.  I didn't know where it went.  In hopes that it would come back, I decided to stay put.  It wasn't long before some terns decided to come and feed right by the spit of land that I was on.  There was a Black Tern, two Common Terns, and a Forster's Tern.  All of them were coming in close to feed, and I got some shots of the Black Tern, as well as both of the Common Terns.  It was fun to watch, observe, and study them up close.

The terns stayed for a long time.  I decided to wait in case the Jaeger would come in and harass them.  It wasn't a bad idea that I had when I saw that Jaeger flying in.  I looked up to see it at just the right time to get lucky with this photograph.  This is Arizona, folks, not a pelagic.  Although, the weather outside was a little rainy and windy, making it Jaeger-like weather with wavy water and dim lighting..

With swift flight and direct movement, the Parasitic came in like a clever pirate, the one I was hoping to hang out with.  And he headed straight for the terns.

From there, Parasitic decided to chase one of the Common Terns.  The sounds that the tern screamed out during the chase sounded like a monkey being murdered.  On the Jaeger's side, all he was simply saying was "surrender your meal".  The chase was amazing to see up close and 50-60 feet away from me at times.

Finally, the tern realized that he wasn't going to enjoy his meal, and he dropped the small fish that he had caught.  And the Parasitic Jaeger got a meal that he didn't work for, but worked hard to steal.

After the Jaeger left, the terns continued to fish more.  And I decided to wait again to see if the Jaeger would come back after he drifted further out onto that water, but still in sight.  The process happened again, and it was once again fun to watch.  This time, the chase took place further away from me than the first time.

After about two hours standing on the spit water level with the lake, I decided to leave.  The Jaeger continued further west out onto the reservoir and out of sight, and I decided that that was a SIGHTING!  I also got lucky with a new ode, this Striped Saddlebags.

After San Carlos Lake, it started raining hard and would continue to rain hard for most of the rest of the day.  I couldn't really do much birding in the weather.  Although I wanted to bird more and more, the Jaeger left me content.  I went to Roosevelt Lake, where I would spend the night again and camp out.  The next day was forecasted to be clear and sunny, and I had some decisions to make of where to go birding.  And there were many things I wanted to do, but one idea was sticking with me much more than others.

I woke up early the next day on September 20th and headed north to the Mogollon Rim to bird the high country for awhile.  I wanted to make another attempt at American Three-toed Woodpecker for Gila County, something that I've done a few times already without success.  Something else I really wanted to do was listen to the Elk bugle up in the mountains there, something that I haven't enjoyed in at least four years.  Elk are one of my favorite animals, and hearing them bugle all over the place and in good quantity is remarkable.  And as I pulled up to my destination, Colcord Road, and started driving along it, Elk were heard everywhere.  Wow!

American Three-toed Woodpecker is a species that I love to see in Arizona.  The are generally a Rocky Mountain species in the west and in Arizona, they typically stay above the Mogollon Rim, which is the southern boundary of the Colorado Plateau.  On eBird, there are a few reports of them in Gila County in places just below the Rim (in which anywhere above the rim in this region is Coconino County).  Two of those three reports have come from the Colcord Road vicinity.  While I've tried about three times in this area, I've come up empty.  However, there is this road/path that follows a telephone pole line that I noticed on Google Maps.  It extended up towards the Rim, and went through some patches of burned forest (which ATTW thrives in).  I decided to give it a shot.  The road was pleasant and climbed up steeply in places, and it was beautiful.  Elk could be heard everywhere.  As I scanned the path before me, a female Elk was in sight.

Forest birds and the sounds of elk were everywhere.  Hairy Woodpeckers were quite common, and I chased down some pecking sounds that would reveal to be Hairy Woodpeckers.  I was checking anything that I could to land my hopeful target.  And then I heard it.  The loud, hollow, rather low and outbursting "pwwiiiieeek" call I have heard many times in the past of the American Three-toed Woodpecker!  It was distant, but as I cupped my hands to my ears, I could hear it much more clearly.  The bird talked for about 30 seconds.  I continued up the path further where there was more burned timber mixed with live timber.  I wasn't able to hear or find anymore Three-toeds past the original point I heard them.  A crack in the woods by me had me curious and as I paused I realized that a big bull elk was lurking in the woods.  He was a full grown Elk, one of those with six points on each antler.  Before I got to the spot he was at, I heard some powerful grunting bugles coming from an elk right in the area, so it had to have been him.  I knelt down to keep him from seeing me while enduring a swarm of mosquitoes, and the bull must have caught my scent.  Somehow, I watched him drift off and then completely dissapear without making a sound.  I was blown away at his intelligence when it came to escaping.

On my way back down, I heard the sound of the Three-toed Woopecker again, and this time it was closer to the trail.  After hearing it call, I worked my way into the woods where the sounds came from.  While moving in pursuit towards the calls, I heard tapping on wood.  It made it easy for me to track down.  And before I knew it, I had my first ever look at an American Three-toed Woodpecker in Gila County, my 298th bird in Gila!  It was fun to watch the woodpecker flake off bark in typical fashion, and Gila County joined Coconino, Greenlee, and Apache Counties for counties I have this woodpecker in in Arizona.  This bird was probably a fourth of a mile below the rim and Coconino County.

Another Three-toed Woodpecker called as I watched this one, giving me two of them.  And then one started drumming, which is always awesome to hear.  Working my way down the trail slowly I enjoyed more birds, including good looks at both Townsend's and Hermit Warblers.

For the remainder of the day, I hit some spots up around Payson and went to four spots at Roosevelt Lake.  Roosevelt didn't give me anything super exciting as further editions, but I enjoyed the continuing Reddish Egret, Red-necked Phalaropes, a large flock of American Avocets, American White Pelicans, and five Caspian Terns.

South side of Roosevelt Lake via Schoolhouse Point Rec. Area.  Salt River 

These two days were another great two days of birding in Gila County, resulting in another great trip.  The best highlight of the trip was by far the Jaeger, which is my bird of 2018 so far.  Before the trip, I decided to count it as Parasitic Jaeger based on my observations and I what I noted in the field as well as the fact that others refound it as a continuing bird.  While it would go down as my Gila County bird the previous week, it felt like I really officially got it as a lifer this trip.  What an incredible time it was enjoying it.  The American Three-toed Woodpeckers have now put me up to 298 species.  As I continue to bird the County, it keeps getting funner and funner.  What will my next few trips hold?