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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Arizona and Utah

Fall Migration in the Canyonlands

2017 Narrative

In Brief:

 This tour is designed to capture both the indescribable beauty of a vast region as well as it’s varied and abundant wildlife. Beginning and ending in Phoenix allowed us to pick up a suite of the Sonoran Desert species not seen anywhere else on our tour such as Broad-billed Hummingbird, Gambel’s Quail, and the riparian-obligate Abert’s Towhee. With major destinations like the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, Cedar Breaks National Monument and Bryce Canyon National Park we were exposed to over 2 billion years of geologic history. Seeing wild California Condors here slowly soaring by massive pink cliffs was a testament to conversation. The world-famous Monument Valley’s wind whipped sand across our faces as we watched the sun set amongst these magical Western emblems. The Navajo Reservation provided experiences with a few magical canyons including the fluid sandstone lines in Antelope Canyon and modern Navajo farmers tending to their crops below the sheer cliffs of Canyon de Chelly. Raptors played a big role in this year’s line-up and included such trophies as Ferruginous, Harris’s, and Zone-tailed Hawks. Some agreed our last three days in the White Mountains of Arizona were the highlight of the trip. The Gray and Pinyon Jays, Red-naped and Williamson’s Sapsuckers, and Olive Warblers we encountered call this place home. Wispy grassland meadows lined the abundant coniferous forests and harbored various high-elevation lakes, which provided a picturesque setting to help us relax and enjoy the end of our extensive journey.

 Narrative:

 As soon as we began our journey east out of Phoenix a Harris’s Hawk was spotted adorned on top of a giant saguaro cactus. A true desert raptor was the perfect way to start our trip and little did we know we would end the tour in a similar fashion. Boyce Thompson Arboretum was lush with vegetation and the result of good summer rains. Here we were exposed to several more desert species only possible in the lower elevations of our tour. A delightful Black-throated Sparrow sang to us when exiting the van. Broad-billed Hummingbirds rattled their calls and Bell’s Vireo’s belted a constant mechanical song as they crept through the dense hackberry trees. Some soft cooing drew us to an Inca Dove that eventually revealed its mate sitting on a nest. Gila Woodpeckers were utilizing the non-native Eucalyptus forest and a Black Phoebe hawked for insects at the reed bed. Kingbirds are absent most years on this tour, but both Western and Cassin’s were seen well through the scope this time. A female Hooded Oriole found us interesting, as did the 5 species of wrens seen here. In view for us were Bewick’s, House, Cactus, Canyon and Rock Wrens. There had been a long-staying Common Crane in northern Arizona so we didn’t spend much time at Roosevelt Lake this year. Despite this we still managed to obtain stellar views of Western and Clark’s Grebes together for excellent comparisons. At Mormon Lake the Crane would remain undetected by us, but there was an amazing heard of Elk enjoying the verdant wet grassland. As the sun was setting over the scene several Northern Harriers worked on their aerial moves low over the open ground.

 After leaving the dense pine forests of Flagstaff we dropped into endless grasslands and eventually the Painted Desert. We visited a sizeable Gunnison’s Prairie Dog colony replete with foraging Horned Larks and Western Earless Lizards. Not too far from this buffet of furry critters it was no surprise to see two wondrous raptors perched on the periphery waiting for their chance. A huge Golden Eagle sat motionless atop a rocky outcrop and a stunning Prairie Falcon took advantage of the only corral posts within miles. Luckily Keith was unsuccessful in leaving behind his fingers for sacrifice. A quick stop at a cattle tank oasis produced the only Solitary Sandpipers we saw. Migrant songbirds also made an appearance and were seen exceptionally well in the bleak landscape. Wilson’s and Yellow Warblers shown bright yellow and an out of place Black-throated Gray Warbler sat at length in a nearby tree. The sun was just perfect to catch the tones of a perched Green-tailed Towhee unbothered by our shuffling feet. California Condors are usually a major reason people come on this particular tour and this year was no exception. We did a quick check at Navajo Bridge where a pair attempted to nest this year but had to move on empty handed. At the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument however we were lucky enough to find 5 individuals loafing on the cliffs. Just as we were finishing our lunch one of these behemoths came floating low overhead as it made its way to westward updrafts. We were also joined by clown-faced Lark Sparrows and Says Phoebes insisting they perch on the barbed wire fence. Continuing our 6,000 foot ascent we hit the slopes of the enormous Kaibab Plateau. A brief stop for ice was augmented by the caretakers’ use of bird feeders behind the building. Thanks to eagle-eyed participants Mountain Chickadee, Red and White-breasted Nuthatches, migrant Rufous and Black-chinned Hummingbirds, and lone female Cassin’s Finch were tallied. The store’s proprietor warned me that a Swainson’s Hawk was usually soaring overhead on windy afternoons and upon exiting the store there it was. The unique wing pattern of dark flight feathers with pale underwing was admired. Making our way to the roads terminus put us at our next hotel and got us ready for many people’s first view of the Grand Canyon.

When rousing in the dark rain was hitting the tin roof making us wonder what our sunrise viewing would be like. Those of us who sat the hour through the rain eventually did get a pretty spectacular first look as the scattered thunderheads added another element to the otherwise otherworldly site. One particular tree’s pinecones were perfect for the picking as we watched 12 Clark’s Nutcracker gorge on nuts right next to the trail. It was hard to keep track of all the black and white flashes shooting through the trees and over the cliffs. Some watchful Steller’s Jays and Red Crossbills also found the situation enticing and joined the corvid mass. As soon as we got to the end of the road at Cape Royal more action started. No less than 5 Lewis’s Woodpeckers clung near each other in 1 tree waiting out the scattered showers. Our walk along the trail yielded an amazing flock of birds adding close-ups of Cassin’s Vireo, Juniper Titmouse, Brown Creeper and a slow-moving female Williamson’s Sapsucker. Raptors took flight opportunistically and both Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks were seen overhead for a teaching lesson in shape. It’s always exciting to see the endemic “Kaibab Squirrel” with sooty black body and snowy white tail. One happened to show briefly for most of us on the drive out.  After a brief picnic lunch with Cassin’s Finches and Red Crossbills to distract us we headed northwest towards southwestern Utah and the Grand Staircase that awaited us.

The same overcast weather followed us into the spectacular Zion Canyon the following morning. The lack of harsh light was actually much better for taking pictures and we all came away with hundreds of memorable shots from this steep 2,000-foot precipice. Our stroll along the River Walk was filled with birds quite used to all the people moving by. At least 8 Canyon Wrens were detected, some quite close, as we admired their unforgettable song bounce its way across the walls. White-spectacled Plumbeous Vireos acknowledged us as well as migrant Hermit Thrushes and Western Tanagers. Our main target species for this area exposed itself with one of the many ‘Rusty spots’ of the tour. Amongst the rushing waters and slippery rocks an American Dipper spent half its time with head submerged underwater looking for aquatic prey. Next on our list of sites was Cedar Breaks National Monument etched into the west side of the Markagunt Plateau. On the way there we made a brief stop at a small lake and campground in the spruce fir habitat. Several Sora floated by on the edges of the marsh here and everyone enjoyed seeing a rail swim. A bird that is difficult to actually see well, MacGillivray’s Warbler, got stuck in an isolated tree with nowhere to go so we appreciated the lengthy study of the subtle hood and light eye crescents. Some recent rain puddles provided a nice bathing area for “Gray-headed” Dark-eyed Juncos and new for the trip Nashville Warbler. Just before getting to the monument a timely stop for a raptor high overhead eventually led to a complete surprise adult California Condor being harassed by Common Ravens. Eventually this primeval bird landed on top of a spruce tree where we relished this scarce species in the scope. In a classic example of 1 good bird leading to another while pinching ourselves over the Condor a young Northern Goshawk came jetting in and caught a thermal overhead giving us the last of the expected accipiter trio. Finally at the Monument we soaked in the orange, pinks, and whites of the ancient lakebed formation’s iron-rich substrates. At Chessman overlook many birds foraging at the amphitheater’s rocky edge joined us. A young Red-tailed Hawk let us see it’s top and bottom and White-throated Swifts were zipping by at high speed. Nice views of “Audubon’s“ Yellow-rumped Warblers and finally Brown Creeper punctuated the scenic wonderland.

The habitat around our next hotel in Mt. Carmel often produces several bird species not encountered yet. A short walk down a 2-track through the oaks and junipers was our after breakfast prescription. A nice mass of Bushtits chattered about and were joined by Black-headed Grosbeak, Spotted Towhee, and Western Wood-Pewee. A nearby pond yielded many Violet-green Swallows and a particularly confiding Rock Wren that insisted on not moving from his ‘safety rock’ while we were there. Bryce Canyon National Park protects some of the world’s most amazing rock structures. It’s easy to admire the 200-foot tall hoodoo arrangements resembling the world’s largest organ in grandiose display. At the aptly named Inspiration Point some loud cackling caught our attention and watched a pair of Peregrine Falcons arguing over who’s airspace was whose. The duo wheeled in circles nearly smashing each other in an aerial ballet until one of them broke free and headed directly towards the eager viewers at eye level for an unforgettable encounter with the world’s fastest bird. Before leaving Bryce entirely we explored some well-watered agricultural fields just outside the park. A grazing heard of Pronghorn sifted through the alfalfa, as a silent white ghost was perched on a power pole on the verges. A regal Ferruginous Hawk was observing from afar awaiting any sign of small mammals with which to pounce. The massive buteo lifted off showing pale wings and tail, and joined at least 6 Swainson’s Hawks in a swirling thermal.

An early morning drive into the rising sun wound us down the brown, red, orange, and pink cliffs of the Grand Staircase as we arrived in Page near the shores of Lake Powell. The narrow rock slit deemed Antelope Canyon allowed us an intimate look at how water has been eroding the Navajo Sandstone in this region for eons. Our photographic tour through this unique geological wonder left everyone with countless memorable shots. Our highlight this evening was a visit to a true ‘American West’ icon at Monument Valley.  Such characters as Elephant Butte and Rain God Mesa stood stoic amidst the valley’s stark outline. The sun setting here provided all with fantastic remembrances as the mesas and spires became shrouded in darkness. Canyon de Chelly contributed a look at ancient ruins long inhabited by the Anasazi. Their descendants, the Navajo Indians, are still farming the canyon today. Spider Rock formation at the end of the road stands over 800 feet tall jutting up from the middle of this coulee. Ganado Lake had more water than usual so scads of American Coot, American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, Blue-winged and Cinnamon Teal, and many White-faced Ibis all enjoyed the abundance. A family of Western Grebes stuck to the middle, undoubtedly because it was safer with the young chicks riding on their backs. Ganado Wash at Hubbell Trading Post was lush and several bird species were savoring the wildflower scene. A Hairy Woodpecker insisted on sitting still and a male Townsend’s Warbler foraged waist-high in a low juniper tree. It was a treat getting all binoculars trained on this gorgeous bird. The Petrified Forest National Park Visitor’s Center just off old route 66 was perhaps the most exciting birding spot on the entire tour. In just 1 hour of slowly walking and tallying birds 32 species were discovered. Highlights included the 19 Sage Thrashers enjoying the perfectly ripe juniper berries. It was hard to believe so many birds could be concentrated in 5 small trees. Both Rufous and Black-chinned Hummingbirds kept vying for the best spots at the blooming flowers while Hermit and Swainson’s Thrushes picked up bugs in the shadows.  Five species of sparrow were obvious and feeding in the open including Brewer’s, Chipping, White-crowned, Lincolns and particularly confiding Green-tailed Towhee. Common warblers like Wilson’s, Orange-crowned, and Yellow darted off as well as both Cassin’s and Plumbeous Vireos. As the sun was setting we stopped at some small ponds to catch the blackbird flocks coming into roost. In flocks of 100’s Red-winged Blackbirds and electric Yellow-headed Blackbirds came floating down in unison for over 30 minutes. We could tell it was getting late when some Common Nighthawks decided to join the party.

The following morning we sauntered along the ancient lava cliffs of the tranquil Little Colorado River at Wenima, immediately followed by another birding gem at Sipe White Mountain Wildlife Area. We were happily greeted and it was explained that a huge hailstorm had ripped through this area hours before. There were still piles of ice under the rainspouts. While sitting out our own rain storm enjoying swinging bench seats of an old ranch house a flurry of hummingbirds hurtled by our heads. We could pick out Broad-tailed, Calliope, Black-chinned, and Rufous as they too shot to life during the lulls in precipitation. Several Red-naped Sapsuckers appeared soaked, but not as much as the out of place Acorn Woodpecker stuck to the side of the only branch out of the rain. Large flocks of Vesper Sparrows were hunkered in the bushes and numbers of “Red-shafted” Northern Flickers burst out of their shelters as we drove by. A highlight was certainly the several flocks of 30 or more Pinyon Jays that kept flying over the excited group. Luna Lake’s picnic overlooking the beautiful area around Alpine coincided with a chance to see a cryptic Virginia Rail. The ducks weren’t too happy here as a pair of Bald Eagles kept them restricted to the shallow western tip. A brief drive up the road to Escudilla Peak added Downy Woodpecker. A small stretch of road had a nice flock thoroughly picked through and amongst the aggregation of Pygmy Nuthatches a male and female Olive Warbler appeared.

South Fork of the Little Colorado is always an exciting place to check first thing in the morning. At our parking spot we spilled out of the van and couldn’t believe that several Townsend’s Solitaires were bathing and perching repeatedly right above our heads. This year a new for the tour Black-and-white Warbler did its best to imitate the Bushtits in the flock it was cruising with, and we finally got unbeatable views of a pair of Spotted Towhees. Along a trail in Greer the winds were picking up, but a male Williamson’s Sapsucker we observed very well didn’t seem to mind. This was also a good area to observe the near-endemic subspecies “Red-backed” Dark-eyed Juncos, or whatever these genetic versions are. After a quick picnic lunch, having nearly been blown away, we ventured up in elevation to see what the dense spruce fir forests had to discover. At Sunrise Campground birds were mostly shielded from the winds. Several Golden-crowned Kinglets bleated ‘tsee ‘tsee ‘tsee and Red Crossbills posed at the treetops. Eventually a group of Gray Jay’s decided to see what we had to offer. It was also nice to see all 3 expected species of nuthatch feeding together down the tree trunks.

Dropping back into the Sonoran Desert allowed us to catch up with some species only possible on the first and last days of the tour. A stop by the Timber Camp just south of the precipitous Salt River Gorge not only hosted an anxious lot of Medieval Times characters in full regalia, but several highly sought after bird species too. In one single flock a Hutton’s Vireo joined a showy Painted Redstart which both jogged around a single Grace’s Warbler festooned in the tall pine trees. A nice-sized family group of Acorn Woodpecker’s ruckus was only overshadowed once when an equally large group of Mexican Jays just had to see what was a stir. Lower down a Crissal Thrasher was in full song, but we couldn’t coax it out for even a little peek. Our lunch at Oak Flat involved scope views of Phainopepla in 1 hand, and a delicious sandwich in the other. Migrant Willow Flycatchers seemed to enjoy the ephemeral pond, as well as many hummingbirds jockeying for position in the unusually flower-ridden landscape. Back into the saguaro-studded hillsides it was hot, but the birds were still showing. A Gilded Flicker flew in and watched us from a cactus perch, as did at least 3 Pyrrhuloxias in their pinkish best. One last check at the numerous Turkey Vultures at last yielded a white tail band indicating a new raptor for trip. The camouflaged Zone-tailed Hawk we scored here was well worth all the work we put into sifting through Vultures for 2 weeks. On the final stretch back into Phoenix perhaps the same Harris’s Hawk was on perhaps the same saguaro cactus along route 60 as we sped by. At Gilbert Water Ranch we had to call it a day, but not after adding even more birds. Abert’s Towhees were abundant and sat right in the middle of the paths. Ornately colored Gambel’s Quail clucked along and several Neotropic Cormorants panted in complaint.

A talented and devoted group of participants made my job easy this year and helped to create a truly unique adventure for everyone. In just over 2,000 miles driven across this scenic land we tallied 193 species of birds and 19 species of mammals. Despite Hurricane Irma bashing into Florida in the middle of our tour we managed most days with perfect weather and bright sunshine. Add to this the great company and it’s surely a trip we’ll never forget.

Jake Mohlmann

2017

Created: 12 October 2017