Sunday, June 24, 2012

A Good Take at Woods Canyon Lake

Arizona is a large state and there's lots of empty space. At first glance, it seems like much of it is hot, uninhabitable stretches of desert. This may actually be the case, but Arizona is also flush with birding hotspots. The southeast corner is known worldwide for drawing a great variety of rare birds. The northwest corner of the state also has some great locations such as the Bill Williams Wildlife Refuge, one of the few places in the U.S. where one can find Nutting's Flycatchers. The White Mountains provide some excellent spots to the east, and Boyce Thompson Arboretum is a great spot down south.

The north central portion of the state also has some good birding, but it's not nearly as publicized as the top-notch locations. A lot of the birds in north central Arizona, around Payson, Strawberry, and Sedona, can be found elsewhere in the state, but these birding sites along the Mogollon Rim (pronounced muggy-own) do have an appeal. They offer cool temperatures, great scenery, and unlike the White Mountains or the Chiricahuas, they're within a two-hour drive of Phoenix.

And there's lots of other neat stuff too, like this Swallow Tail.

Maria and I recently spent some time with my family up at a cabin in Strawberry, AZ. From Strawberry we could easily reach other spots along the Mogollon Rim, such as Kehl Springs, Blue Ridge Reservoir, and Woods Canyon Lake. Woods Canyon Lake is about 30 miles east of Payson, off the SR 260 highway. It's an old favorite of the Butler brood. Many summers we'd camp and fish along its rocky shores, but this was my first time returning to focus on the birds.

Woods Canyon Lake offers the best birding in the area and is the most accessible of the reservoir lakes along the rim. It has been the preferred spot for a pair of nesting Bald Eagles the last 5 years, and is also a popular roosting spot for Osprey and Great Blue Herons.

There's a 3 mile loop trail around the lake, parts of which is paved for the less mobile folks. The loop trail is definitely the best way to explore the surrounding pine forest for its feathered residents, and it provides some excellent views of the lake as well. Of course, with a pair of eager eyes one can find lots of other critters too. The Bald Eagle nesting site is protected from the public, and hikers have to take a detour to give the area its proper clearance. Along the way, we got some very distant views of the Eagle couple and their chick, as well as a very close view of this Horny Toad on an old fence post. His pink skin, though pretty, inhibited his camouflage.

 "Ugh! Foiled Again!"

Luckily for the Horny Toad we weren't hungry, having previously filled up on turkey sandwiches and strawberries (score!). It was lunchtime though for some of the more conspicuous critters. Woods Canyon Lake groundsquirrels are very tame. Having conducted a thorough study of the human camping habits, they often conduct daring daylight raids into campgrounds and picnic areas, taking chips and leaving no prisoners.

The best birding is on the north side of the lake. If one feels like hauling a scope that far, the north shore provides some clear views of the Eagle nest, and seems to have higher concentrations of songbirds too.

One of the target birds of this WCL expedition was the Red-faced Warbler. These little dynamos are definitely high-elevation highlights in Arizona. Even though they're not overly common, they can be found pretty regularly, if sporadically, in the Mogollon pine forests. Unfortunately, the little bugger below eluded my manual focus, leaving me with some in-focus pine needles at the center and a blurry bird off to the side. Argh, I've been warbled!

Though they're the most striking, the RFWA is not the only pretty face around the woods. Western Tanagers have a much larger range than their red-faced companions, and are more common, but I've still never heard anyone complain when a Tanager flies into view. They can be found all along the Mogollon Rim in the summer months, and provide an unmistakable flash of color as they dart through the trees.

Like the Red-faced, the Grace's Warbler is another specialist of the high altitude pine forests. Like the Summer Tanager, they turn up in the summer months and fill the woods with their warbling songs and flashes of yellow. This particular bird had been singing with much gusto until a cloud briefly blocked out the sun. With his spotlight gone, the warbler became very shy, one might say red-faced. Here he is anxiously awaiting its return.

Warblers and Tanagers supply the color around Woods Canyon Lake, while the Eagles and Osprey supply a little majesty. Mountain Chickadees and Dark-eyed Juncos play the role of filler-bird. They're a common sight all along the lake, with the Chickadees occupying the tree canopies and the Juncos foraging along the needle-laden floor. 

Since they're unusual at the lower elevations, the Juncos and Chickadees are a welcome sight. Their fluttering feeding frenzies often rope in other birds too, such as this Plumbeous Vireo. The Vireo was having a hard time keeping up with the Chickadees, but still tried its best. It paused only a moment to catch it's breath, and I paused to catch a photo. 

Kinda like a tiny Mockingbird with glasses.

The Plumbeous Vireo was pretty sweet, but the sighting of the day was definitely a pair of Townsend's Solitaires. This was a new bird for me, one I should've seen by now and one I was very glad to put to rest. They're by no means unusual for the area, but they're not exactly common or easy to find either. In this case, there was one adult bringing food to a recent fledgling, and since both were pretty distracted by this endeavor they paid me little mind. 

The Solitaire isn't the most colorful bird around, but there's something extra satisfying about finding a bird that occupies its own group in North America, like the Phainopeplas or Verdins--something that's totally unique. It's hard to pinpoint, but there's something very impressive about these birds in person. At any rate, it's the only bird of which I am aware that has inspired a famous card game.

Alas, there were no Three-toed Woodpeckers or Northern Pygmy Owls to report, but they're also possibilities for the area. While recording my sightings, I noticed there are very few eBird submissions for the area. In my experiences, it's a rich but under-appreciated birding spot, with Grosbeaks, Titmice, and lots of migrants also common to the area. Woods Canyon Lake doesn't have the name recognition or established credentials of the other big hotspots--and it probably never will--but it's a great relief from the hot city, and at only an hour and a half away, it's a a great day trip, especially if one wants to fit in a little kayaking or fishing on the side.