Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Wash Before Lunch

This past Saturday my family and I decided to do some morning birding and a picnic lunch at Mesquite Wash, a great little birding spot just northeast of Phoenix. The Mesquite Wash is fed by Sycamore Creek, and while there wasn't a lot of water, there was enough to keep things green and cool.

Mesquite Wash is accessible between miles 207 and 208 off the AZ-87 (beeline) highway. There is a parking area to the west of the AZ-87, which didn't give me a great first impression. There was lots of dust and litter, but even as we pulled in we could hear birds singing from the nearby trees, and we caught glimpses of Western Tanagers and Yellow Warblers while still getting stuff out of the car!

From the parking lot, we made the short walk down towards the creek. Along the way we had good looks at some of the desert chaparral birds, including Black-Throated Sparrows, Lucy's Warblers, and Cardinals (which can also be found everywhere else).

Although it was a short walk to the stream, it was also pretty hot, and the discomfort was exacerbated by dust-stirring motorbikes passing nearby. The sound of trickling water was very welcome, and the sight of running water was a little piece of heaven.

The water at Mesquite Wash sustains the cottonwood and willow trees, which reflected their green off its glassy surface and shaded the bathing Lesser Goldfinches.

The birding was good and the environment was very enjoyable--everything was going according to plan. The big surprise came when we spotted this fatty Gila Monster slinking its way up from the water, trying to make a daring 0.024 mph escape back into the bordering grass.

This is the first Gila Monster I've seen in the wild. I must admit, the lizard's comical proportions and plodding pace largely offset its infamous reputation (it is one of only two venomous lizard species). It was very tempting to try and pet his bumpy hide, but getting bitten would've ruined our outing...prudence can be such a difficult thing.

After about half a mile the wash starts to narrow, and the desert canyons become more prominent. This provided a welcome diversity in habitat and birds. We were able to alternate between viewing Yellow Warblers, Warbling Vireos, Wilson's Warblers in the canopies and the Phainopeplas and Lucy's Warblers in the chaparral.

I will not apologize for this photo because it's my first and only Lucy's picture.

I will not apologize for this picture because Phainopeplas are awesome and should be viewed in any way, in any quality, as often as possible.

We also spent some time checking out this flycatcher. Unfortunately, I couldn't get very close for a better photo, and the bird stayed stubbornly still. It did have a notched tail (so no Western Kingbird, it was also too small and slender) but not enough yellow on the breast to be a Tropical Kingbird. My vote is Dusky-Capped Flycatcher, but I am very open to suggestions.

After checking out the desert scene, we stopped to observe a little holding pond. The stagnant water here was very popular with Red-Winged Blackbirds and lots of insects, including this nifty dragonfly which I will not attempt to identify.

We continued down the wash, knowing that soon it would be time to turn back for lunch, but also wanting to explore the liminal space where the water thinned out and the tall trees transitioned into tall grass. The last few trees played host to some Bronzed Cowbirds, one of the cooler kinds of Cowbirds and a species I do not see very often.

The tall grasses below the trees formed a charming little prairie, and it was there that we found the birding highlights of the day. You need a big beak and a big head to eat these mighty grains. This was Grosbeak territory. This male Blue Grosbeak was a lifer for me, one that I have been hoping to see for a long time.

It was only while reviewing photos later on that I discovered he had a female friend, whom you can see in the background. Birds feeding in tall grass make for great binocular looks but less than great pictures. I cared not a lick; the Blue Grosbeak is "epic," to use the buzzword of these last few years.

This azure all-star ascended to the treetops for a brief surveillance before departing. My jaw hurt from hanging open for so long. While crawling along the wash, trying to keep low and small, I had collected quite a few scrapes and scratches, as well as a lovely collection of gravel and pebbles in my pants.  Birding can be dirty, dusty, even painful business. I often feel like those stingy scrapes and after effects make a first-time sighting all the better. Getting a good look at the bird and having a bit of lingering's like a good stiff drink right afterwards (obviously, having a few scrapes and a stiff drink right after is best). It makes me feel like I've earned it. Anyone agree? 

The Blue Grosbeak was probably the most beautiful bird in the grass, but coming close is second was the male Black-Headed Grosbeak. He too was enjoying the unlimited buffet, and it was at this point that our grumbling stomachs and satisfactory sightings prompted a return to the cars.

On the way back we found lots and lots of tiny frogs in the wash gravel. They were not there when we first proceeded, so we developed the theory that some of the dirt bikes that had earlier gone roaring through had upturned the gravel and disturbed these tiny amphibians. I must admit, I was pretty irked at the dirt bikers for interrupting the serenity of the Mesquite Wash setting, especially because there was plenty of space for them to ride around that was within their limits. That being said, these frogs were pretty cute, and I'm glad I got to see them. This guy was maybe the size of a dime.

We decided to take out picnic lunch to the nearby Saguaro Lake, where we could eat on ridiculously undersized picnic tables (for me anyway) and enjoy some shade that wasn't in the water. In addition to providing a comfortable setting that went very well with our avocado, turkey, and munster cheese sandwiches (score!), Saguaro Lake had a few cool birds too, including a late Yellow-Rumped Warbler, Wilson's Warblers, and Vermillion Flycatchers:

This teasing jelly-belly wouldn't give me a look at his front, but seeing a Vermillion is undoubtedly a great way to end a birding trip, even if it's playing hard-to-get. I'm planning a return to Mesquite Wash later this summer. It was a great birding site by all accounts, and is supposed to be a good location to find Yellow-Billed Cuckoos, another one of my 2012 target birds. The summer is just starting to heat up!


  1. Wow, what an awesome birding day!

    I get Sandy Pants when photographing shorebirds and it sounds like you get Gravel Pants looking for birds there!

    You get so many birds I would love to see in Phoenix, the Bronzed Cowbirds are spectacular.

    A shot of Tequila might take the sting out of the scrapes & cuts.

    1. Yes indeed, at least I get the dirt to show I was there. I'd love to do these birds more justice with my photos, but it's baby steps I guess (or in this case, I'm literally crawling : )

  2. Nice nice nice!!!! That's a whole lot of birds you saw and the Gila monster is definitely a cool find. I have yet to see a live one in the wild. Very cool lizard to see around....and the birds. You sure did see a lot of great colors....reds, yellows...and a blue! Who knew there was a blue grosbeak out there? I didn't! Now I'll be keeping my eyes out for these beauties. And no need to apologize for the Phainopepla, Lucy, etc. They are always welcome in my book:) Tequila or rum is a good way to numb the pain:) But it's all worth it like you say:)

    1. There seems to be something poetic about having a shot of Tequila after a run-in with a Gila.

      It was a lovely morning, but one that only leaves ya thirsting for more. Seeing new birds is great, but then there's the secondary pull, the desire to get proper photos of the new birds. My saga with the Blue Grosbeaks is, I suspect, only beginning.

      Good luck out there this weekend Chris.

  3. Congrats on the Blue Grosbeak as well on all the stellar sightings of the day! I think I would probably be most fascinated with the Gila Monster~I had no idea they were poisonous. I guess it's a good thing I don't see them mulling around here!

    1. Gilas are peculiar monsters, and it was very cool to see this chubb slinking around. There aren't any Gila Monsters in Florida, but hey, you guys have Alligators, which are wayyy more deadly even without the venom.

  4. Thanks for the photos on the Gila Monster. I am envious of your find, but maybe someday I will also get lucky and run across one. I too, like Mesquite Wash, but the riders and campers can sometimes put a dent in enjoyment of such a wonderful place.

    1. I know what you mean Gordon. It was very frustrating to have them blow by us off the trail, with no respect for the delicate habitat or this group of people who were trying to enjoy it. As far as a motor bike is concerned, there's no reason to drive straight through the wash versus the designated are around it. The fact that different groups went through the Wash anyway tells me that they still have that inescapable pull towards the scenery; I just wish they'd find a less abrasive way to appreciate it.

  5. Sounds like a quality and stressful place to bird. ORVs are such a bummer, although I would be lying if I said that I didn't like using ATVs for work. Congrats on the Blue Grosbeak, it is not possible to get tired of them.

    That flycatcher is's hard to gauge the size. Dusky-capped is a good guess though, although Brown-crested is another possibility.

    1. Thanks Seagull.
      The ambiguous Flycatcher didn't seem any bigger than 8 inches, so I ruled out Brown-Crested (one of which I did actually see later that day, and it again seemed much larger.

  6. Laurence, what a day you had! I agree about dirt bikers! Yuk! What a way to ruin a day! However, I am glad you made the most of it anyways! You did see a lot of birds and congrats on the Lifer! Your dragonfly is called a Flame Skimmer. I saw them when I lived in AZ and have a photo posted on my Sycamore Canyon blog. An entomologist friend identified it for me but I must confess I had to go back and look at the post to remember the name! If you are interested I can send you the link or you can go to that blog and click on the label for "Insects of AZ". Keep on birding! you are on a roll!

    Oh, as for the Gila monster, they usually will leave you alone as you are too big for them to eat and their poison is delivered via sacs located at the back of their mouths so that they actually have to chew on you to dispense it! they do not deliver injections like rattlesnakes do! But perhaps you already know this.

    1. Thanks Kathie.

      I did know that about the GIla Monsters, having been somewhat of a reptile nerd when I was younger (still am, just much more favoring of birds now). I figured my odds against the Gila Monster were pretty good, but I held my breath and tried to puff myself up just in case!