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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Arizona and Utah

Fall Migration in the Canyonlands

2018 Narrative

In Brief:

An amazing 2,019 miles and 198 species were logged on our latest Arizona and Utah adventure. This tour is designed to capture both the indescribable beauty of a vast region as well as it’s varied and abundant wildlife. With major 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. The world-famous Monument Valley’s wind whipped sand across our faces as we watched the sun set amongst these magical Western emblems. Birds abound in this region with 10 species of Woodpeckers seen highlighted by several male Williamson’s Sapsuckers, 13 raptor species including both Peregrine and Prairie Falcons, and 16 sparrows with an early Sooty Fox Sparrow added to the cumulative list. Not to be overshadowed by the famous parks were places like Arizona’s White Mountains where we were able to unwind, relax and enjoy a few days of blissful birding isolation before ending our tour in the saguaro-studded landscape of the Sonoran desert thousands of feet below.


Our first morning we quickly consumed breakfast and loaded up the van to try and beat the heat of the steamy Sonoran Desert. With our sights set on Boyce Thompson Arboretum we were ready for our first taste of bird life. Baby rattle calls alerted us to the presence of both male and female Broad-billed Hummingbirds as they fed on the tubular honey suckle blooms. Gambel’s Quail shot across the trail at times with top knot en tow and a group of Cactus Wrens gave us a close inspection from the safety of thorny cover. The repetitive mechanical song of the Bell’s Vireo was easy to hear, but seeing this bird proved more difficult as it crept through the dense thickets. Eventually we were able to see this great representative of the ‘little gray birds of the desert’ section in the Sibley bird guide. For some a Lucy’s Warbler, another representative of this group, popped into view for a few seconds and then disappeared across the dry creek bed. Some harsh calling drew our attention, and we were careful to see the dark undertail of the scolding Black-tailed Gnatcatcher passing by. Ladder-backed and Gila Woodpecker, both devoted to this arid region, worked the tops of the massive eucalyptus trees while some late  “Cactus” Purple Martins soared high overhead slowly heading south.

We were then off to Roosevelt Lake, a 20 mile long wet oasis flooding the giant Tonto Basin. This area hosted a bunch of water birds including very nice comparisons of Western and Clarks Grebes. When seen alone these birds can be tough to identify but seeing them close together in the scope made us all experts at this task. The hydrophilic Osprey’s presence always pleases and both Great and Snowy egrets lurked around the muddy edge. En route to the vast pine forests on top of the Colorado Plateau constantly inspecting all the Turkey Vultures yielded one that had white tail bands and a feathered head. This clinched the ID of a Zone-tailed Hawk, a wonderful mimic, and we watched it at-length soar in a thermal directly overhead. The views of Mormon Lake were wonderful as we watched over 200 elk of various ages dredge through the mucky mess fattening up for leaner times. At one fruitful overlook someone alerted the group’s attention to a few shrubs that had activity in them. Quickly several species showed nicely including excellent views of Ash-throated Flycatcher, Green-tailed Towhee, White-crowned Sparrow, and surprise Fox Sparrow which was new for the tour.

Mountain meadows had displaying Vesper Sparrows and excellent views of the volcanic San Francisco Peaks and some of the over 600 cinder cones in the area. A tank in the middle of the seemingly endless barren landscape full of water and birds included extended views of Willow and Dusky Flycatcher, Black-throated Gray Warbler, and Brewer’s Sparrows. Travelers have been stopping at Cameron Trading Post for over 100 years as they pass through the Painted Desert on the banks of the Little Colorado River. This is still popular with tourists and the courtyard of the hotel grounds usually harbors birds that allow very close inspection. Such was the case this year as we had the best views of MacGillivray’s Warbler one could ask for. This warbler is normally extremely shy and sticks to the deepest parts of the largest shrubs so we felt very lucky with our situation. Another fruiting shrub had numerous Western Tanagers and a skulking Hermit Thrush utilizing the ripe berries.  Manicured gardens with flowers gave us great views of a couple Rufous Hummingbirds fueling up for their long migration. The massive Vermillion Cliffs shoot up out of the expansive view and are the best spot on the tour for Condor searching. While enjoying our picnic lunch we were entertained by at least 6 California Condors as they soared across the burnt walls. The long drive into the North Rim of the Grand Canyon disclosed several new raptors including good views of Red-tailed and Sharp-shinned Hawks. An opportune stop at some feeders here gave us excellent views of Cassin’s Finch, Lazuli Bunting, House Wren, Mountain Chickadee, and a flock of Pine Siskins. To end our day as the sun set at the Grand Canyon we were treated to a sensational dinner overlooking this vast gorge.

Our sunrise at the Canyon was amazing to see as the shadows grew long and revealed the endless chasms that create the massive canyon. Breakfast at the lodge was perfectly timed with the distracting scenery as company. A walk down Cape Royal introduced lots of Bushtit flocks and a wheeling group of Clark’s Nutcrackers dropping swiftly from the sky. Heading north ascending the Grand Staircase a strategically placed overlook showed millions of years of geologic history in layer case fashion with the Gray, White, Pink, and Red levels nicely on display. In the parking lot the recently split Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay showed surprisingly well as it flew back and forth over the unlucky car that was pulled over by the Arizona Highway Patrol. The flashing red and blue lights added a nice ambiance to the scene. Zion National Park with its towering thousand foot rusty sandstone cliffs was a joy for us all. We meandered along the river walk enjoying the scarlet monkey flower and fireweed in bloom held precariously from the cliff sides in lush hanging gardens. A pair of Canyon Wrens found us interesting and hopped through the bouldery trailside very close. Extensive searching finally revealed the antics of the American Dipper. We managed to get within 2 meters of this aquatic ballerina as it danced through the rushing waters in search of larvae clinging to the underside of rocks. Just before leaving the park a group of 14 Bighorn Sheep made the van screech to a halt. The desert subspecies of this magnificent mammal is adapted to the more arid environment and has evolved a lighter coat color and bigger ears to help offset the rigors of the hot and dry region. The Duck Creek area, stuck amidst thousand-year-old lava flows, yielded great looks at a young Sora picking through the muddy edges of a pond. Several mixed species flocks were encountered here and found owl imitations particularly interesting. All three nuthatch species expected on this tour came down to eye level. White-breasted, Red-breasted, and Pygmy Nuthatches were altogether in 1 binocular field of view! Other birds seen well here included a Red Crossbill expertly splitting pine cones, Mountain Chickadees sounding their alarms, “Gray-headed” Dark-eyed Juncos working the needle litter, and at least a dozen raging Ruby-crowned Kinglets. It’s also worth mentioning that today was a big day for small mammal viewing as well. Both Uinta and Least Chipmunks sat in observation, Rock Squirrels seemed happy with cheek pouches stuffed, Red Squirrels carried cones across the road, and the showy Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel scurried across steep slopes. Cedar Breaks National Monument finally appeared as we gained elevation to over 10,000 feet and struck us all with its colorful beauty. One particular 1,400-year-old Pine Tree is still hanging on atop the gigantic amphitheater of red, orange, purple, and white endless cliffs on this western edge of the Markagungt Plateau.

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 post breakfast prescription. A nice mass of Bushtits chattered about and was joined by Cassin’s and Warbling Vireos, and both Orange-crowned and Virginia’s Warblers. At least 5 species of swallow hawked for insects including several Cliff and Bank. A nearby pond yielded masses of Violet-green Swallows perched on powerlines 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 opulent display.

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 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 an interruption by an opportunistic Peregrine Falcon attacking a flock of unassuming Yellow-headed Blackbirds foraging in the grass. 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.

Years of drought were evident across the Navajo Nation and the usual spot to tick several new species, Many Farms Lake, was completely dry. Maybe this is the reason why the nearby spring here was attracting so many interesting species. We were able to add Gray Flycatcher, Nashville and Wilson’s Warblers, and a wayward Northern Waterthrush to our growing list. Canyon de Chelly contributed a look at ancient ruins long inhabited by the Anasazi, or ‘ancient ones’. Their descendants, the Navajo Indians, are still farming the canyon today. At one overlook a call note alerted us to a very obliging Juniper Titmouse cracking seeds abound on the ground.

Ganado Lake sits among a large juniper forest tract and was attracting more birds this year than any. Another sign of the desert’s drought was the fact we could drive completely around the muddy lake edge for the first time. In the dead trees abutting the lake many flocks of birds were utilizing the perfect habitat choice. Using the van as a blind allowed us to get within meters of foraging Baird’s sandpipers, as well watching a pair of White-faced Ibis probe the mud underneath the water for any morsels. Scads of both Vesper and Savanah Sparrows flushed constantly and the shrubs were loaded with Yellow and MacGillivray’s Warblers. Even an early Lark Bunting was spotted among the crowds.

En route to the White Mountains we drove through the Petrified Forest National Park. The Visitor’s Center here just off old route 66 was one of the most exciting birding spot on the entire tour. In just 1 hour of slowly walking the grounds we tallied 21 species. Highlights included adding Cassin’s Kingbird, Plumbeous Vireo, and Dusky Flycatcher to the tally. A bird of the trip for one participant was spotted here as we enjoyed arm’s length views of a perched Calliope Hummingbird resting before its long journey to winter grounds. It was hard to believe so many birds could be concentrated in such a small area.

Wenima Wildlife Management Area sits astride the lush Little Colorado River stuffed with trees and shrubs full of food and a nice assortment of birds. Our only Sage Thrasher of the tour was met here, as well as a family of very vocal Canyon Towhees. As we were leaving an excellent spot came when someone yelled out Greater Roadrunner! This is always one of the most wanted birds of the trip and one of the most difficult to find so we were happy with out 15 minute vigil as this bird bill snapped and moaned its song while perched atop a volcanic rock. 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 as we sat amid the grasslands surrounding this location. At Luna Lake we enjoyed our lunch as 3 odd birds began to reveal themselves. An extremely out of place Vermilion Flycatcher was feeding on the boat ramp far removed from its normal desert haunts 7,000 feet below. Even more Purple Martins were seen here and a complete vagrant Blackpoll Warbler was an addition to the cumulative trip list. An afternoon drive onto Escudilla Mountain revealed several migrant flocks, best of which contained a couple male Townsend’s Warblers and pair of Olive Warblers, lifer for most on the tour! South Fork’s volcanic cliffs harbored many birds such as the endangered southwestern Willow Flycatcher, Gray Catbird, Townsend’s Solitaire, and Lazuli Bunting. In the hamlet of Greer a recently burned area laid home to a couple of very exciting birds. A recently peeled bark pile from the eroding Pines was a sure sign that woodpeckers were nearby. Soon after we were lucky enough to witness a male American Three-toed woodpecker perch for 10 minutes at the top of a hollow snag and drum it’s accelerating beat repeatedly. In a land as dry as this any puddle can harbor bathing birds. In a wet recession in the road several Western Bluebirds, Black-throated Gray Warblers, and at least 3 bright male Williamson’s Sapsuckers took turns utilizing this scarce resource. The vast expanses of native grassland are pockmarked with bodies of water like the famous Sunrise Lake. A heard of 100 elk foraged in the verges as we picked through the various flocks of birds. A fleeting glimpse of a Northern Goshawk was enjoyed by a few, but prolonged looks at a hunting Merlin made everyone very happy. Sunrise Campground harbors a patch of spruce for forest high in the mountains. Some quick owl imitations revealed the excitement hidden in the needles. We came beak to nose with several large flocks of Mountain Chickadees, Brown Creepers, 3 nuthatch species, and the fire-striped Golden-crowned Kinglet! At the appropriately named Big Lake Common Mergansers swam with Western Grebes and a chain of cormorants dotted the shoreline. One of the cormorants looked odd however and a short hike and closer view revealed it’s true identity. A Neotropic Cormorant, far from it it’s usual grounds, sidled in line attempting to blend in with it’s bigger cousins. As we were leaving a massive 1st year Bald Eagle kept us in awe as it lumbered overhead searching for a place to spend the night.

While rushing west on Route 260 through the small town of McNary a black flash shot across the road and our hopes were up. Finally our long awaited Lewis’s Woodpecker made an appearance. We quickly fixed the scopes on this gorgeous bird and noticed there were at least seven in the surrounding trees. A stop in the sky islands around Globe rewarded is with extended views of a true stunner. A showy male Painted Redstart, as if detailed by hand, sang at length in the Sycamore Canyons it prefers. Finally at the 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 Inca Doves foraged in the weeds.

A talented and devoted group of participants made my job even easier this year and helped to create a truly unique adventure for everyone. This was the most laid back bunch of folks I’ve ever had the pleasure to lead which certainly aided in everyone’s enjoyment. Thank you all for a wonderful experience and see you in the field.

Jake Mohlmann


Created: 17 October 2018