Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Back to Phoenix, AZ: South Mountain, December 21

I was up before sunrise on December 21, picked up breakfast to go and filled my gas tank.  I was headed west on I-40 toward Flagstaff by about 6:30 am.  When the sun came up, it was partly cloudy and appeared to be clearing.  The road was clear with no snow cover.  As I approached Flagstaff, it was cloudy again with a few snowflakes falling.  The road was mostly wet without ice or extensive snow cover, but there were a few places with a little snow or slush.  Flagstaff had snow last night.  It was a good idea to stay in Gallup, NM last night.  I headed south on I-17 toward Phoenix.  All the trees and the roadside were snow-covered.  I drove slower than the speed limit, because the road was wet and the air temperature was near or just below the freezing point.  As I got further south and to low elevation, the snow on the trees and along the roadside disappeared and the road was completely dry.  Eventually, all snow was gone, and I continued to Phoenix to I-10 and headed east (south) on I-10 to East Chandler Boulevard.  I was headed to South Mountain Park and the Telegraph Pass Trail to try for the Gray Vireo that Isaac Sanchez had seen and photographed two days ago.

I arrived at about 10:30 am at the trailhead to Telegraph Pass Trail.  Isaac had told me that this was a busy trail, and he had been there during the week.  December 21 was a Saturday, and I expected even more people.  It would have been better if I had arrived early in the morning, but that was not possible given the snow, requiring me to stay in Gallup, NM last night.  I gathered my camera, binoculars, some water and a snack and headed up the trail.  The first part of the trail was paved until the trail dipped down to a wash.  Then the trail headed uphill to the left toward the pass following the wash.  Isaac had found the Gray Vireo in a ravine on the left side about a mile up the trail.  The wash turned into a ravine further uphill.  As I approached the ravine on the steeply rising trail, I started hearing vireo call notes, “scray    scray” and a series of rapidly descending musical scold notes.  These were the calls and scolds of Gray Vireo.  Now all I had to do was to find and see it.  There appeared to be two Gray Vireos.  One Gray Vireo was calling to the east of the trail and uphill.  A second Gray vireo was calling not too far west of the trail.  I stopped to watch and listen at a convenient spot along the side of the trail near the ravine, hoping to get a closer look and perhaps photographs of the Gray Vireo.  I hoped that the bird would come in closer between the frequent small groups of hikers going up the trail and coming down from the pass.  Eventually, a Gray Vireo came in close for excellent looks but not completely cooperative for photos.  See photos.
Gray Vireo
thick vireo bill, all gray, white eye ring with slight wing bar and long tail
Gray Vireo
While I was waiting to see the Gray Vireo, there was a cooperative Rock Wren and a Black-tailed Gnatcatcher nearby.  See photos.
Rock Wren
Black-tailed Gnatcatcher
I felt very fortunate to see Gray Vireo in winter, particularly in Arizona relatively close to the other places where I have been birding.  When I was at Gambel, AK back in September, Paul Lehman had told me that the only place he knew of wintering Gray Vireos was in Anza-Borrego Desert in a stand of elephant trees, which require a very long hike to get there.  While I was writing this post, I searched for information about wintering Gray Vireos in Arizona and discovered a survey completed by Arizona Field Ornithologists (AZFO) in 2011, who found over-wintering Gray Vireos associated with elephant tree (Busera microphylla).  Prior to and during this hike up Telegraph Pass Trail, I did not know how to identify elephant trees.  However, now I know that there were elephant trees in the area where Isaac and I found Gray Vireo.  Apparently, the fruit of the elephant tree provides an important winter food source for Gray Vireos.  There is an photo of a Gray Vireo eating ripe elephant tree fruit in the online report of the AZFO report of their survey.

I headed back down the trail to the parking area and had left the trail head by about 1:30 pm.  There was enough time for some additional birding.  I was headed toward Saguaro National Park to try for Gilded Flicker.  I had tried for Gilded Flicker there in August during the hot part of the afternoon and was unsuccessful.  I arrived at Saguaro NP between 4:00 and 4:30 pm.  See photo of typical saguaros near the entry.

Saguaros along Bejada Loop Drive
There wasn’t enough time before sunset to do much hiking on any of the nature trails; therefore, I drove the Scenic Bejada Loop Drive entering on the one-way side of the loop and then planned to turn right at the two-waypoint of the drive toward Ez-Kim-In-Zin picnic area.  Back in August when I visited, I had driven only the scenic drive and had not found a Gilded Flicker.  Consequently, I decided to explore a new area.  I was driving slowly with my windows partially down hoping to hear a flicker call.  Gilded Flicker calls are similar to those of Northern Flicker, and should be easily heard.  Before I got to the intersection where I needed to turn right to the picnic area, I heard a flicker calling.  I stopped, got out and walked toward the call, but never found the bird, which stopped calling apparently as I got closer.  I drove toward the intersection and turned right toward the Ez-Kim-In-Zin picnic area.  After short distance, a flicker flew up from the ground not far from the road on the north side.  As it flew, yellow in the wings and tail showed, a good sign for Gilded Flicker.  The flicker landed on top of a dead saguaro about 50 yards away and stayed for a short time for me to study it through binoculars.  This flicker was a female without a whisker mark, which if present should have been red for a male Gilded Flicker, had a light gray face and a brown crown which in the sunlight looked a cinnamon color.  Gilded Flicker!  The Gilded Flicker didn’t stay up very long and flew back down to the ground, showing the yellow in the wings and tail again.  When I met Richard Fray at Florida Canyon more than a week ago, we discussed the birds I still needed and Gilded Flickers.  When I told him of my experience in August of driving through Saguaro NP without finding a Gilded Flicker, he mentioned that Gilded Flickers spend more time on the ground feeding amongst the cacti and do not spend a great deal of time perched up high.  That’s a great description of this Gilded Flicker’s behavior.   I still wanted to try for a photograph if I could find another Gilded Flicker but the sun was getting lower in the west.  I continued to the Ez-Kim-In-Zim picnic area, and got out and started birding.  A woodpecker was calling, but it was a Gila Woodpecker sitting on top of a low dead bush.  I walked around the area and circled toward a pavilion on top of a rocky area.  I wasn’t finding much until I happened to look up and saw a flicker sitting in the open on an ocotillo.  This flicker also appeared to be a female Gilded Flicker.   The bird flew around the area and sat on some low perches, as I tried for some photos.  Eventually, I obtained one not very satisfying photo of the Gilded Flicker sitting facing away from me on another lower tree but in the shade of the evening.  It is possible to see some Gilded Flicker field marks in this photo, the lighter colored back with finer barring than on Northern Flicker (both Yellow- and Red-shafted), the brown on the crown, grayish brown on the nape, the light gray face, and a little yellow showing on the right wing, but it is not a satisfying photograph.  The cinnamon color of the crown, particularly on the front part of the crown cannot be seen in this photo due to the low light and the face is barely visible due to the flicker facing away.  See photo below.
Gilded Flicker, back view
brown on crown, grayish brown on nape, light colored back with fine barring
yellow under flight feathers at right, nape feathers ruffled by breeze and
showing dark spots
(adjusted to remove some shadows
I drove back toward entry and the Visitor Center and took some scenery photos.  See below.
View to the east close to sunset, note gold on mountains
Sunset and Saguaros
Sunset and Saguaros
At about 5:30 pm with the sun down, I headed toward I-10 and drove south to Tucson to stay the night.  Tomorrow, I will try for Dusky Flycatcher in the Tucson area, which had been reported on eBird at Tanque Verde Wash off of Wentworth Road, on December 11 and 14, and if time permits Lawrence’s Goldfinch at the Ina Road Bridge near Tucson.

Gray Vireo and Gilded Flicker raise the total to 730 plus two provisionals, Common Redstart and Eurasian Sparrowhawk as of December 21.   (See the final total for the year, 733 + 2 provisionals, reported on January 3, 2014.)    

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