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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Arizona and Utah

Fall Migration in the Canyonlands

2016 Narrative

In Brief: An amazing 203 species and almost 2,000 miles were logged on our recent Arizona and Utah adventure. This tour is designed to capture both the indescribable beauty of a vast and diversified region as well as its varied and abundant wildlife. With destinations like the Grand Canyon, Canyon de Chelly, Cedar Breaks National Monument and Bryce Canyon National Park we were exposed to over 2 billion years of geologic history. As luck would have it our group got to view a young California Condor fly to the edge of its cliff nest in Zion National Park and witness the successful story of their conservation. The winds of the world-famous Monument Valley whipped and swirled sand around us as we watched the sun set amongst the magical monolithic sandstone buttes. Not to be overshadowed by these famous parks, we spent quality time in Arizona’s White Mountains where it was more relaxed allowing us to unwind and enjoy a few days of blissful birding isolation before concluding our tour in the saguaro-studded lower Sonoran desert.

In Detail: This year with the residual of hurricane (Newton) forecasted to hit the area on day one, we kept our fingers crossed we could stay ahead of it until we got to Flagstaff where the weather was sunny and ideal. Gratefully it remained good weather for the rest of our tour.

In the early morning of our first full day, we quickly loaded the van and left Phoenix heading north to stay ahead of the system. Arriving at Boyce Thompson Arboretum in the clouds and rain provided a cool and calm experience with the desert birds enjoying the unexpected change in weather. Scads of Turkey Vultures were perched on the surrounding cliffs like gargoyle’s watching us as we meandered through the trails. Scope views of Curve-billed Thrasher and Black-throated Sparrow delighted and entertained us as did the 15 Western Tanagers gorging on berries. Many Warbling Vireos were moving through and joined the resident Bewick’s and Canyon Wrens working the grounds. The lake level at the arboretum was low but sufficient enough to entice a seemingly out of place female Belted Kingfisher. On to Roosevelt Lake where we were viewed a gathering of water birds which allowed nice comparisons of Western and Clarks Grebes side-by-side in the scope. Great and Snowy egrets lurked around the muddy edge while an Osprey dove for fish within easy viewing. The landscape surrounding Mormon Lake was amazing as we watched over 100 elk dredge through the mucky mess fattening up for winter. While pursuing Chipping Sparrows we flushed a surprised Peregrine Falcon that retreated with haste. As we left Mormon Lake for our night in Flagstaff a Northern Harrier flew in front of the van, adding one more species to our growing list.

It was an early start to our day as we headed to nearby Picture Canyon. Even before getting out of the car we had a pair of Jays comprised of single Pinyon and Steller’s feeding amongst downed trees with several “Red-shafted” Northern Flickers in the mix. Upon exiting the vehicle we were met by a mixed flock containing White-breasted and Pygmy Nuthatches, Mountain Chickadees, and fluttering Rufous Hummingbird. Birds were bountiful during our two hours and perhaps most exciting were the four species of vireo encountered, Warbling, Plumbeous, Cassin’s, and new one for the tour, White-eyed. Warblers were abundant with several good views of MacGillivray’s, Black-throated Gray, Orange-crowned, Wilson’s and a beautiful Grace’s. Above our heads foraging Brown Creepers appeared while Green-tailed Towhees’ stood in salute. Driving north, skirting the Painted Desert, crossing the mighty Colorado River then cutting through Marble Canyon to the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument where we were very lucky to see a single California Condor soaring high above the arid landscape. Making our way south along the vast Kaibab Plateau we enjoyed a marvelous display of a Prairie Falcon zooming overhead and then stopped to enjoy a heard of American Buffalo. Our final stop for the day came at the edge of one of the most wonderful scenes on earth, the awesome Grand Canyon, where we enjoyed a beautiful sunset and dinner overlooking this vast crevice.

An early departure on this day enables us to experience something very few visitor’s to the Grand Canyon get to enjoy. Arriving to the edge of the canyon in the dark and watching the sun creep up the vast walls can only be summed up as awe-inspiring. A variety of birds start swooping by in the pre-dawn which included Steller’s Jays, Violet-green Swallows, Common Ravens, and a jet-like Sharp-shinned Hawk. While en route to Cape Final our second Prairie Falcon of the trip was catching a thermal enabling those that missed the first bird good views of this speedy raptor. Our lunch stop near Jacob Lake hosted a suite of birds not seen elsewhere on the tour including a single female Cassin’s Finch feeding with Dark-eyed Juncos, and a series of perched Red Crossbills showing their namesake bills well through the scope. After lunch we began our ascent up the Grand Staircase and making our way to the famed Zion National Park. We arrived at our hotel for the evening with enough time before dinner to watch the sun setting on the towering sandstone cliffs looming above heads.

In the pre-morning dark we shuttled in to the park and caught the first tram into Zion Canyon, the most impressive part of this area. The river walk was chilly as we skirted the Virgin River looking for, and successfully finding, a couple of American Dippers tucking their heads underwater looking larvae. Our last stop in the canyon was to hopefully see one of the California Condors successfully bred in Zion. The rangers directed us to a viewing spot for the cliff nest and we watched as an adult-sized youngster stepped to the edge of a cliff, looking out over a 1,000 foot abyss.  It perched on the edge for a few minutes peering out onto the skies then took flight. It’s hard to believe there were only 22 of these beauties left in the world! Upon leaving Zion through the east exit, we noticed a Golden Eagle kettling just off the pavement. We were able to pull off the road and enjoy eye-level views of this soaring master and even watched as it perched in a nearby tree. It’s always tough to put your binoculars away, but we needed to push on to Cedar Breaks National Monument situated at just over 10,000 feet. This amphitheater of coral pink and orange hoodoos has to be seen to believe at just over 3 miles wide and 2,000 feet deep. Due to the excellent hiking abilities of the group we ventured on a mile long walk to Alpine Pond walking along the edge of this beautiful wonderland where we were highly entertained by the insect, Mormon Crickets, crossing our path.

Bryce Canyon National Park with vast canyons full of otherworldly hoodoos captivated our attention for over an hour. Randomly a friend of mine who is a Park Ranger at Bryce surprised us and offered for us to come eat lunch at his quarters situated within the park. It was great to hear about this region from local experts while we picnicked, not to mention the flock in their back yard, containing a Plumbeous Vireo! Moving on, Panguitch Lake was productive as usual. Several species birds were hunting the fish-rich waters of this fertile lake which included Bald Eagle, Osprey, California Gull and a pair of Caspian Terns. Hundreds of waterfowl peppered the water with the largest numbers being American Coot, Ruddy Duck, and Eared Grebes. We even added a new mammal to the tour here when a Yellow-bellied Marmot came out of its hole to forage on fresh shoots.

Arriving in Page, located near the shores of Lake Powell, we watched a Greater Roadrunner gorge on some tasty tidbits on the local golf course. The Wastewater Treatment facility here is always exciting and this year was no exception. A scope view study of Wilson’s and Red-necked Phalaropes was a treat, only allowing interruptions by the many Yellow-headed Blackbirds foraging along the fence. Northern Pintail, Redhead, Canvasback, Lesser Scaup, and both Blue and Green-winged Teal allowed close study as well. Our trek in to the narrow rock slit canyon named ‘Antelope Canyon’ allowed us an intimate look at how water has been eroding the Navajo Sandstone in this region for eons. This evening was highlighted by a visit to a true ‘American West’ icon in Monument Valley. The setting sun showered us with fantastic and picturesque views as the mesas and spires changed from vibrant red sandstone to being shrouded in darkness. Our visit to Canyon de Chelly included a look at ancient ruins long inhabited by the Anasazi, or ‘ancient ones’. Their descendants, the Navajo Indians, are still farming the canyon today much as they did long ago. The windy conditions kept the bird activity down, but having had several passes from a Peregrine Falcon from above, provided great views from a seldom seen angle.

Wenima Wildlife Management Area sits astride the lush Little Colorado River filled with trees and shrubs full of food and a wide assortment of birds. Hammond’s Flycatcher, as well as a bright male Red-naped Sapsucker, Cassin’s Vireo and a Merlin flashing by in front of our eyes. Sipe Wildlife Area is a great place to sit down and relax while watching the hummingbird feeders. Great comparisons of Black-chinned, Broad-tailed, and Rufous Hummingbirds were enjoyed amid the Juniper-studded grasslands surrounding this location. At Luna Lake we enjoyed our lunch as three Common Terns cruised by low overhead. On the muddy shoreline we had an excellent experience when both Virginia Rail and Sora were studied by everyone as they slipped in and out of the reeds. An afternoon drive onto Escudilla Mountain revealed several migrant flocks, best of which contained a single male Olive Warbler, lifer for some and new for the tour! South Fork’s volcanic cliffs harbored many birds such as the endangered southwestern Willow Flycatcher, Gray Catbird, Lincoln’s Sparrow, and Lazuli Bunting. A mega flock of Bushtits flowed around us as we stood on the banks of the river. In amongst this flock we managed to pick out Orange-crowned, Yellow-rumped, and Wilson’s Warblers with a brief view of a male Hepatic Tanager. While all this was going on a Townsend’s Solitaires whistled from the treetops above. The campground here was very birdy this year with a good sized flock containing Townsend’s, Nashville and Virginia’s Warblers, Downy Woodpecker, Hermit Thrush and a Golden-crowned Kinglet amongst its fir and spruce trees. Walking through the area downwind allowed the group a close approach to a huge male bull elk that was scratching the last of his velvet off on a downed aspen tree, and even closer to a female elk with young in tow.

Reluctant to leave such a wonderful place we headed back to Phoenix with several stops in between. We said goodbye to the vast pine forests of central Arizona, but not before hitting the jackpot with a mixed foraging flock of Painted Redstart, Hepatic Tanager, Plumbeous and Hutton’s Vireos, five Olive, and multiple Grace’s and Black-throated Gray Warblers with a sentinel Juniper Titmouse calling front and center at Timber Camp. Lower on the juniper slopes below the Mogollon Rim another exciting raptor graced our presence when a Zone-tailed Hawk soared low overhead relieving any suspicion it might be a Turkey Vulture. At Oak Flat we added another species to the list, Pyrrhuloxia. Its calls were intermixed with Crissal Thrashers that some of us saw, along with flocks of sparrows comprised of Lark, White-crowned, Black-throated, and Vesper. Our last stop in Phoenix was to Gilbert Water Ranch where Gambel’s Quail scurried across the path, Neotropic Cormorants basked in the sun and a new species for the tour, a Tricolored Heron.

A talented and devoted group of participants enhanced the tour this year and helped to create a truly unique adventure for everyone, including myself. Their willingness to hike more than usual enabled us to cover more ground and as a result ended with a very nice total of species. Thanks for a wonderful tour and I’ll see you in the field.

-Jake Mohlmann

Updated: September 2016