8/12/2021 - 8/21/2021
My brother and I finally got another guy's trip pulled together. He had some holes in his AZ life list, and I love visiting this state. Neither one of us had been there in August before, and it is supposed to be a great time to visit. It is "monsoon season", and the time of year when Arizona turns green. If only we knew what that meant. We had a plan, and we even got through most of it. The nice thing was that we were flexible and could adjust plans as we went. Jeff has 17 lifers on his target list. I have 7 on mine; 6 of those are also on his list So, with a plan and a list, we hit the road - what a bumpy ride it would be.
How it starts-
The trip started and ended in Phoenix. We got in on the 12th and spent 3 hours waiting for a rental car. Travel in the times of Covid.... We had planned to arrive early and crash early. Our first stop of the trip was a sunrise arrival at the infamous Thrasher Spot. You can google it on Google Maps. It actually has a location in Google. With the long wait for a car, it was going to be a short night.
Step one complete. In spite of the short night, we got here at sunrise. Now, we just need to find my lifer LeConte's Thrasher. This area is supposed to be slated for construction. They are going to turn it into a solar farm. From what I had read, construction had started, but we did not see any. With this being one of the best known locations for seeing LeConte's Thrasher (Bendire's, Crissal, and Curve-billed can be found here, too), I was eager to go. LeConte's is the last thrasher species I have not seen. We did not know much about birding the area. What we did know is that they like to scurry about on the ground and generally be difficult to see. We also knew that they liked to hang out in the "washes". The picture above is not a "wash". If you look in the upper-left, there is a line of mesquite, willow, and creosote bushes. This dense line of foliage is a wash. When it rains, it appears this is the area where water runs, and it stays more verdant. There are several of these in the area. There are also snakes; so, watch your step.
Our first bird of the morning was a poorly photographed Bendire's Thrasher. We initially wrote it off as a Curve-billed; otherwise, we probably would have made more efforts to photograph it. Since it was not our target bird, we paid it little attention - our loss. Eventually, I caught the distant call of a LeConte's (always learn the call of your target bird). It was coming from a distant wash. Jeff was able to scan the area and pick up the bird sitting in the top of a willow and calling. Now to get within photo distance. Cue the laugh track. This is a bit of a game. As soon as the bird saw us approaching, it hopped down and disappeared. Ten minutes of waiting will allow it time to move somewhere else, hop up onto a perch, and then start calling again. Wash (no pun intended), rinse, repeat. The bird eventually grew somewhat accustomed to us walking around and allowed approach within a photographable distance. Turns out, there were two. One was molting and a bit rough. They would separate, and then the one would hop up and call until the other one returned; at which point they both would run off for a bit.
We spent a couple hours out here. There were many imm. Verdin and a lot of Black-tailed Gnatcatcher and House Finch. Gambell's Quail would scurry about, and small flocks of Mourning Dove were everywhere. There were flowers blooming everywhere, too. The poppies were beautiful.
After a couple hours it was already hot, and we were ready to head back. This is where being flexible saved us. The plan called for us to drive to Wilcox and scout a location for some night photography. It was only 9:00 AM by this point, and we did not want to waste morning hours just driving to Wilcox. It was cloudy, and the forecast called for rain; so, night photography was out anyway. Looking things over, we decided to grab our luggage and head north. An hour and a half later, we were in Seven Springs. Seven Springs is a location in the Tonto National Forest. There have been a number of reports of Black-chinned Sparrow from the area.
To get into the area, you drive past a golf course, and we actually had our only Harris's Hawks of the trip there. Not much further along, we hit dirt road and started our search. All we knew was the call of the bird and that it liked shrubby hillsides. That described a lot of the area we were driving in. Driving with the windows down, we looked and listened. Way down the road, we got into some steeper hillsides, and this is where we had our first bird. There were actually two singing there, but we only saw one. It was the only one we would really see. All others were heard-only. While he was working from bush-to-bush, he never made it down to eye level; sticking to the higher slopes and the tops of bushes. I was forced to accept a backlit shot pointed fairly high up for a documentation photo. I would have loved better.
Also in the area were Bell's Vireo, Northern Cardinal, and lot of Blue Grosbeak. We saw so many Blue Grosbeak this trip; they were jokingly referred to as "trash birds". We also had some Lazuli Bunting, but they were so skittish we could not get any pictures. At one point, we parked and tried walking the road up to them. It was a complete failure, but we did get our first Rufous-crowned Sparrow of the trip on that walk.
We drove around a bit more and eventually hit the campgrounds. At one of the spring crossings, we had Black-headed Grosbeak and Western Tanager feeding in the bushes near a campsite. We got out to attempt photos. The birds did not stick around though. Looking down, Jeff pointed out an old syringe laying on the ground, and we decided it was time to head back.
The drive to Wilcox was uneventful. By the time we got to Wilcox, we had just enough time to pick up some food before the storm hit. It was a strong and powerful storm. Strong enough, we changed our plans for the next day. Unsure of what the mountain roads would be like, we decided to reverse our plans and head around to Portal Rd down to Portal instead of taking the road over the Onion Saddle. Turns out, this was probably a really good idea. More about that in the next post.
How it ends-
Fast-forward to the afternoon of the 20th, and you will find us back in Phoenix. We have had a pretty good trip. Our only real misses are night birds. Some, like the Buff-colored Nightjar, just are not being seen - too late for close views at California Gulch. Elf Owl has migrated. Others, like Whiskered and Western Screech-Owl and Mexican Whip-poor-will were not calling or being seen in the Chiricahuas. Maybe it was the rains? It is hard to complain. We do have a couple gaps in our list though, and we hoped to plug them this day. We started in Tucson by birding Sweetwater for roadrunner. The place was very quiet. We went to Catalina SP. The road was closed. We tired a couple small regional parks. No joy. Giving up, we headed north to Phoenix and towards the end of our trip. We had an ace up our sleeves, though. We had purchased tickets to the Desert Botanical Gardens. We had a couple targets lined up for this location.
Getting into Phoenix on the afternoon of the 20th, we decided to try our luck at roadrunner and lovebird. Our first stop was at the Gilbert Riparian Observatory. It was about 100 degrees and middle of the day by then. Not sure what we were thinking. We walked the place anyway. It is a nice enough place, and we padded out our trip list a bit. American Avocet was probably the surprise bird. There were Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Black-necked Stilt, and Snowy Egret in the water. Black Phoebe, Anna's Hummingbird, and Abert's Towhee were the main birds present along the trail. Interestingly, a couple of the Anna's had distinctly curved bills. Not sure of the cause. We retreated to the hotel afterwards and then birded a couple small parks nearby after dinner. We were looking for lovebirds, but we did not find any.
The 21st was our last day, and we did not have to fly home until the afternoon. That left quite a bit of time to bird. We had bought tickets for the Desert Botanical Gardens for the earliest timeslot available. The gardens had been closed all week, and this was the first day that they were open, again. We had three targets here: Costa's Hummingbird, Gilded Flicker, and Greater Roadrunner. Only the Costa's would be new (and our 12th hummingbird of the trip), but we were hoping for good photos of the others. When we arrived, we were informed that some areas were still closed due to storm damage. Seems like the monsoons were not done with us yet. The short version is that every area we planned to walk was closed. The hummingbird area was closed. The desert loop that walked the edge of the park was closed.
Making the best of it, we found a fountain where birds were coming in to drink. Mostly, we had House Finch, but a good mix of birds were funneling through. A Rosy-faced Lovebird even came by briefly, but he did not come down for a drink. We also had a Curve-billed Thrasher serenade us.
While here, Jeff noticed some hummingbirds flying over in a different area. We walked over and got lucky. There, feeding on little, red, puffy flowers on a bush was a Costa's Hummingbird. It is the only time we found it there, and it is the only one we saw. It fed for a minute and then perched on an open branch for pictures. Sometimes, you just get lucky.
It was after this that we found out that the outer loop trail was closed. This was where we had planned to find Gilded Flicker. There is a very small loop trail next to it that was open. The Sonoran Desert trail; something like that. We walked it once and had nothing. A little later in the morning, we gave it one more shot. Along this trail, Jeff had noted some fruit on a saguaro. It is the only saguaro we saw this trip with fruit on it. This turned out to be the hot spot. Various birds were coming in to feed on the fruit. Yes, you guessed it. The Gilded Flicker even stopped by.
We were pretty excited. In the same area, a rough-looking Verdin was building a nest. The Gila, I do not recall them being so shy, remained distant. Other birds in the park were Gambell's Quail, Cactus Wren, and even a sleeping Great Horned Owl. It was from the top of the Sonoran Trail that Jeff pulled us our last bird of the trip. Turns out, he had been religiously checking every hole in every cactus we have seen for owls. The ones I have checked have looked like the one in the photo below - empty. Well, he found a very distant Western Screech-Owl poking its head out of a hole. The hole was being mobbed by starlings and woodpeckers, and it did not appear the owl was going to be getting much rest.
All in all, we were very disappointed that a large portion of the park was closed. It is hard to argue with our success. I would have loved to be able to explore the entire place. I will have to say that I was happy to have the 600mm lens this trip. But it was oversized for shooting at this park. Things were a bit cramped, and we got some odd looks from people in there.
We left around 10:00 AM and grabbed a shower and luggage back at the hotel. With nothing else to do, we headed up to Encanto Park to look for more lovebirds. We found a couple cooperative birds sheltering from the heat in some palms.
We also drove out to McDowell Mountain Park. I was surprised at the size of this place. Since we had the luggage, we did not get out and explore. I would like to check the place out on a future trip, though. All in all, we were both surprised at the number of quality parks in Phoenix - and Arizona as a whole. It shines a harsh light on the quality of our parks here. It is hard to have nice things when the people do not treat them with respect. Arizona seems to have a lot of respect for their natural areas.
With nothing else left, we headed to the airport an hour earlier than needed. We thought we would take the time to wind down before heading home. Well, we had a lot of time - 6 hours to be exact. I am not sure why I picked American Airlines to fly. I have had issues every time I fly with them. This time was no exception. The flight was an hour and a half late arriving. Then it had to be parked for a half hour to wait on issues at the Indy airport. Our 11:20 PM arrival turned into a 1:20 AM arrival, and I did not get home until almost 3:00 AM. Thankfully, I did not have to work in the morning. Let me say this again. I will not fly American Airlines; even if they offer the only direct flight.
Anyway, it was a bit of a downer for an otherwise good trip. We had a lot of issues with the rain on this trip, but we still came out pretty good. A quick by-the-numbers summary -
9 days of birding
3 lifers for me
11 for Jeff
I will call that a success. Stay tuned for more posts from this trip and, hopefully, more future trips with my brother.
Thanks for reading,