This past weekend, Tommy DeBardeleben and I set out to do some birding in Graham County in Arizona and specifically visit Mt Graham. At 10,720 feet in elevation, it is the highest 'Sky Island' in Arizona and what an awesome place to visit. The Swift Trail or Road 366 is about 35 miles from the start off Highway 191 all the way to Riggs Lake, with about the last 12 miles being unpaved. Campgrounds abound at many places along this road.
Our goal was to search for as many species of birds we could in the short 2 days that we had and create a year list for Graham County. Tommy had never been birding in Graham County and I had only visited it twice in the past, once in 2011 and once in 2012. Of course our focus was Mt Graham, but we had some other stops to make on the way and the first of these was Cluff Ranch, south of the small town of Pima. We started off great with a Swainson's Hawk on the road into the preserve that allowed some photos from the car.
One of our target birds was the Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, (a small bird with a funny name). This bird is fairly common in spots in southern Arizona, but this location is close to being the on the northern fringes of its range. It had been a nemesis bid for me for some time, but I knew it was just a matter of time that I would be able to add this bird to my life list. They have been reported here, so we knew our chances were good in finding one and it's call was the first clue to knowing it was here. A small bird that can be easily overlooked if it is not calling or foraging.
Lark Sparrows were in abundance. It is one of our largest sparrows and its distinctive facial pattern helps to make identification of this sparrow fairly easy.
Our visit to Pond #3 resulted in several White-throated Swifts flying over the water along with many swallows. I have never attempted to photograph this bird before simply for the fact that they are always in-flight and their flight pattern is fast and erratic. But never-the-less, this time I made a feeble attempt to obtain photos and got a couple that were at least identifiable.
From Cluff Ranch, it was a short drive to the Leay Lane Water treatment ponds. Unfortunately, everything was enclosed in chain-link fence and locked up, so we were not able to view quite as well as we would have liked. We did have a Greater Roadrunner run ahead of our vehicle for a distance before exiting off into the fringes of a cotton field.
View of Mt Graham in the distance from Leay Lane
Next stop was south of the town of Safford, Roper Lake State Park. This spot is fairly well known for its birding, but this day was a bust for for us. I have been here on both my previous visits and found some decent numbers of birds. The only bright spot was a Belted Kingfisher that flew over and hovered above the water in front of us.
Next was a brief stop at Dankworth Pond which had far more diversity and numbers of birds than Roper Lake. We found out the next day that about 3 hours after our visit to Dankworth Pond, another birder reported a fly over by an adult Anhinga at this location. Apparently we were about 3 hours too early bit for this location on this day. An Ahiniga in Arizona??? That would have been an awesome find as there had only been one other sighting of that bird in AZ and that was in 1893. Several others including Tommy and I checked back at the pond and it was not seen again.
Ruddy Duck at Dankworth Pond
From here we then started the long trek up Mt Graham with several stops along the way. Probably the most rewarding stop was the Arcadia Campground. This campground was full of people, but we chose to skirt the main campground and follow some trails and also some dry washes without trails. We had several warbler species including Red-faced Warbler and several Hermit Warblers.
Hermit Warbler - Female
Hermit Warbler - Female
We had read some reports that Spotted Owls had been found in and around this campground, so we did have a bit of a strategy in trying to see if we could locate one. Obviously we felt the need to get away from any of the main trails and focus on where a Spotted Owl might be. During the day they are basically hard to find as they just sit perched without moving and this species is one that can be quite unafraid of human activity. We knew we had to keep our eyes open for them and even though it seems they would be easy to spot sitting motionless in a tree, they can be very easy to overlook. In the bottom of one of the washes, we stopped for a couple of minutes to discuss where they could be hiding, then as we took no more than 5 steps, Tommy looked back and up to the right and lo and behold, one of them sat on a limb, probably watching us as we were discussing them. This one was a year hatch bird, so we know that the adult parents had to be nearby although we did not see any. It would stare down at us from just a few feet away, probably wondering what these 2 humans were doing. It would look down at us and every once in a while would stare off in the distance at a squirrel. After a some great photos and some adrenaline pumping, we departed to leave it in peace.
Tommy & the Owl - note upper right of photo
So much for the first day of birding in Graham County. The Spotted Owl, which is a threatened species was definitely the highlight of this day. More to come on the 2nd day, but will finish off this post with a few photos of some other non-avian specialties.
Yarrow's Spiny Lizard
Yarrow's Spiny Lizard