22 June 2016

Northern Arizona I & II

Howdy!  It's been a whopping 19 days since I've conjured up a blog post but rest assured, I've been busy doing birdy things for the last couple of weeks (think of it as blog content research!).  This post will be devoted to the two back-to-back tours John Coons and I did for Field Guides in northern Arizona.

Flying into Phoenix and then to Flagstaff, I saw several wildfires burning below us.  They're pretty easy to spot from that high up!
But no, none of the fires actually caused us any concern on the ground (which is a relief during the unpredictable fire season).  Actually, a couple of the days on tour we smelled some smoke here and there but it was never much of an issue.

As soon as our groups arrived at the airport, we all headed to a nearby forest that was burned 2 years ago.  Perhaps the most uncommon of our targets was AMERICAN THREE-TOED WOODPECKER.  Thankfully, we connected with them each time!  Here's a male hanging out (literally) on a Ponderosa Pine:
It's true, they only have 3 toes per foot whereas most other woodpeckers have 4.  Although they might be slightly more limited in terms of mobility than other woodpeckers, it's believed that 3 toes per foot might actually give them the ability to make stronger blows.

As you can see below, you can actually count all 3 toes on this one:
Another target on our first afternoon was OLIVE WARBLER, an odd species that only barely makes it that far north (most birders see their lifer in southeast Arizona).  Again, we were successful in seeing these on both tours thanks to John who has years of experience in the area:
See the notched tail?  That's something that typical wood-warblers lack.  Actually, very little about this species is typical of wood-warblers... but that's for another post.

One last target that we had in mind for our first afternoon was RED-FACED WARBLER, yet another species that most people associate with southeast Arizona.  However, like the Olive Warbler, they do range as far north as Flagstaff and we had AMAZING looks at this wonderfully unique warbler without too much difficulty:
On one of the tours, we swung through a park in Flagstaff that had been hosting 1-2 GRAY CATBIRDS.  Although rare locally, most of us were familiar with them from out east:
The next day, we took our groups north of Flagstaff to the flanks of the imposing San Francisco Peaks, the highest mountains in Arizona.  But first, John knew right where a nest hole was for LEWIS'S WOODPECKER.  What a treat to share some of our morning with this odd, black-backed woodpecker.  Here it is peeking out:
Sometimes the bird would be more active and would sit outside the hole as well:
The birding in the aspen forests north of Flagstaff though was some of my favorite birding on the entire trip.  The temperatures were pleasant, the forest loud with song, and the bird selection was fascinating.  Here's a panorama of our group searching for woodpeckers there one morning:
Speaking of woodpeckers, one of the more interesting ones we were targeting was the WILLIAMSON'S SAPSUCKER, a species with so much sexual dimorphism that the two sexes were initially described as different species.  We were successful on both trips to track down the distinctive males, complete with their black backs and yellow bellies:
I will say though, the light filtering through their habitat in the morning made for a beautiful sight, one I won't forget anytime soon:
At one point, we were lucky to spot this LONG-TAILED WEASEL running about in pursuit of a ground squirrel (or something similar).  This isn't a creature we stumble onto very often so we felt lucky to watch it watch us:
But moving up the road a bit, one of the target areas we birded with both groups was Hart Prairie.  This well-known spot on the flanks of the San Francisco Peaks hosts a variety of interesting species... ones we were keen to spot.  Here's a panorama of the prairie:
One of the reasons I found Hart Prairie so interesting was the historical aspect.  You see, the very first DUSKY FLYCATCHER was described from this location (this is known as a type locality).  And yes indeed, we had several of these little empids darting around:
If that bird is too drab for you, try the gorgeous sky-blue of male MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRDS that were seen in the area:
The Hart Prairie area had several warbler species that we would try seeing with our groups.  One such species was the VIRGINIA'S WARBLER, a close relative to Nashville Warbler.  Here's the former with the russet crown, yellow throat, and bold white eyering:
Another widespread warbler that breeds in that bushy habitat is the secretive MACGILLIVRAY'S WARBLER.  Except, we were all lucky to see this species being not-so-secretive!  Here's a gorgeous look at this skulker:
The aspen forests around Hart Prairie is a good spot to look for RED-NAPED SAPSUCKERS too.  We struck gold on one of the tours and produced great looks of this western species.  Here's a male (note the completely red chin):
Just down the road from the prairie, we were pleased to find this TOWNSEND'S SOLITAIRE on territory, an uncommon species in those parts.  We returned for round two and luckily found the bird again:
Near the solitaire spot, I found and eagerly photographed this butterfly knowing full well that it was some kind of elfin (a favorite group of mine).  Turns out, indeed, this is a WESTERN PINE ELFIN, only the 2nd or 3rd one I'd ever seen:
Anyway, after that first full day of birding, we returned to Flagstaff and had dinner at John's place which, as it happens, is a very reliable location for PINYON JAYS.  No one argued with point-blank looks of these coming in to the water feature!
LESSER GOLDFINCHES were commonplace at the feeders as well.  I suppose this might be the closest I've ever been to this species?  Here's a male:
Moving on to the next day... without a doubt, most participants were eager to go to the Grand Canyon to look for CALIFORNIA CONDORS.  After all, the name "condor" even existed in the trip title!

The first group got lucky and we spotted one of these giants soaring over the parking lot as soon as we arrived!  We couldn't believe our luck.  And hey, what a big bird!
This species, with its 9-10 foot wingspan, is the largest flying bird here in North America.  However, they've had a troubled past and at one point the total population had dipped to 27 total birds.  They were all captured, bred in captivity, and have been reintroduced in recent years.  Today, there are more than 400 condors out on their own.  And now that they're technically "countable" by the ABA, I'm sure more and more birders will make the trek to see these giants.

On our second tour, we ventured up to the Navajo Bridge over the Marble Canyon to look for them.  Thankfully, we spotted a few adults perched together on a distant canyon wall:
You can see that both of these birds are wearing wing tags which help researchers identify individuals.  This is "H9" and "54".

The Grand Canyon, besides having freaking amazing views like this:
... is a good spot to look for some other species as well.  Case in point, we had stunning looks at ZONE-TAILED HAWK there on both of our tours:
The South Rim of the canyon is also a good place to look for WESTERN SCRUB-JAYS:
It's important to note with these birds that they'll likely be split out into a different species soon called the "Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay".  Duly noted.

The omnipresent rock at the canyon hosts, well, ROCK WRENS in abundance.  Here's one with what looks like a tasty morsel (to it, at least):
The sky above the canyon was busy too, mostly with VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOWS and WHITE-THROATED SWIFTS.  Here's one of the latter sporting a bulging full crop (meaning it's storing food in its throat):
Sadly, because of all the people and inevitable feeding of animals, the ROCK SQUIRRELS there were very tame.  I suppose I took advantage of that and snapped this picture:
SNAKE!  Don't worry, it was just a "Sonoran" Gopher Snake we spotted at one of the overlooks:
As a side trip on the Grand Canyon days, we also visited some excellent dry country habitat where we had a couple of targets, mainly SCOTT'S ORIOLE.  Luckily, John's scouting paid off and we were successful in seeing this southwestern oriole species on both tours:
Another target in that habitat was GRAY VIREO.  Again, we formed a good track record of finding this out-of-the-way species of vireo.  I hardly minded either, I had seen fewer than 5 in my life before that.  Here it is in all its grayness:
Moving on to later days, we spent the final two days of the tours birding areas south of Flagstaff such as the lower elevation deserts and some riparian areas in Oak Creek Canyon.

The scenery really changed down there too.  For example, here's the very colorful desert near Sedona:
The riparian areas were really enjoyable though, such a different habitat than what we were used to seeing.  One of the breeding species we targeted was COMMON BLACK HAWK and we were lucky to see them on nests, like this:
... and soaring overhead, like this:
A few of the spots in Oak Creek Canyon hosted another warbler that we often associate with spots farther south.  This is the PAINTED REDSTART, a flashy warbler of wooded canyons:
Some of the insects were interesting on those days south of Flagstaff.  Here's a very sharp WEIDERMIER'S ADMIRAL that we spotted one of the days:
And many of you will recognize this next butterfly, the large and bold SILVER-SPOTTED SKIPPER.  This particular one behaved really well and with the light behind me, it made for some nice photos:
We visited Montezuma Well on both trips, a really neat national monument that hosts interesting ruins AND interesting birds.  Here's a look at the well from the overlook:
On the cliff walls above the well, you can gaze upon some ruins:
Nearby dry areas hosted things like CACTUS WREN, CRISSAL THRASHER, and yet another drab gray bird... the GRAY FLYCATCHER:
But even with all the gray birds we saw (Bushtit, Juniper Titmouse, Verdin, Lucy's Warbler, Gray Vireo, Gray Flycatcher, Gray Catbird, etc), we hardly left Arizona in a gray mood; it was a really enjoyable time exploring some new areas and showing folks some cool new birds.  Major props to John for his expertise, patience, and willingness to have me along!  

Until the next blog post, adios.