Saturday, March 23, 2013

Hustlin' Hassayampa

An hour northwest of Phoenix but still within Maricopa County is a totally sweet birding spot. The Hassayampa River Preserve is a beautiful and well-known riparian area fed by underground springs that make up the Hassayampa corridor. It's a fabulous birding site, far more fabulous than my subsequent photos will demonstrate, as migrating Black Hawks, nesting Gray Hawks, and tons of passerines turning up there every spring. Recently there have been impressive sightings of Williamsons's Sapsucker, Downy Woodpecker, Winter Wren, and in the past few years it has also hosted cool vagrants like Dickcissel and Green Kingfisher.

Here is the view from Lyke's Lookout, a tidy little hill west of the visitor center. This big strand of green is visible flying into Arizona from California and is one of the most extensive and densely foliated riparian channels in the state.

Unfortunately, I have only birded hew a few times. One big reason for my negligence is that the hour of driving must take place on Grand Avenue, a perverted freeway still possessing numerous traffic lights and speeding cameras, along with lots of aloof drivers. Grand Avenue is literally my least favorite place to drive in Arizona. It also has an entry fee ($5 isn't too steep though) and is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. At any rate, my recent trip there was a reminder of how truly special this site is, and I promise to be more dutiful to it in the future.

At about 6:30am I met up with Tommy DeBardeleben, also known as the Mayor of Maricopa for his exploits in Maricopa County birding and blogging. If you've ever google-searched a birding site in central Arizona and been to this website, Tommy is to thank, and if you haven't, well, then you really should visit it. Anyway, he had clued me into a report of Williamson's Sapsucker at the preserve, a bird I was planning to chase at Boyce Thompson Arboretum but which had not been relocated there for a couple of days. We started our morning of birding at the Hassyampa rest stop, which is about two miles southeast of the actual preserve and is one of the best places to see concentrated Vermilion Flycatchers doing their thing.

Their thing is basically limited to perching and being gorgeous, devouring flies, and chasing each other around while trying to also perform flight displays. It was funny to watch all of these birds, because the males would perform their twittering fluttering flight displays for the ladies, and then also chase them away if they got too close to the favored perches. Life is full of angst for these birds. Can't have it both ways...

The Hassayampa Preserve opens at 8am, and for the next three hours or so we scanned cottonwoods, chased after shadows, and saw a lot of cool birds on the way to never actually finding the Sapsucker. Flocks of Lawrence's Goldfinches, calling Gray Hawks, and one flushed Black Hawk made for an excellent morning, even with our target bird a no-show. We did get some nice looks and vocalizations from an over-wintering Scarlet Tanager too, and I am ashamed to admit that this is the best photo I've managed of this canopy-craving species. Blotchy and pale...this bird is a mockery of the true Tanager form, but maybe he'll turn up again when he's more sexy.

In the vein of getting poor photos that are still better than anything else I'd managed, we also relocated a  tiny Winter Wren that Tommy had discovered at Hassayampa a while back. Yup, this grainy, twig-heavy shot is another personal best. Winter Wren played right into our hands...

By 11am, we were starting to feel that the Sapsucker would be a no-show, and the rest of the day's testimonials proved that this ultimately was the case. During this period we had also developed an unhealthy annoyance, even anger, against the numerous, distracting, false-hope-giving Ladder-backed Woodpeckers frequenting the same haunt as the Sapsucker. So that we could still take something great from the afternoon and not swear a vendetta against Ladder-backs, we swung by the private residence of another birder friend who has hosted a wintering Orchard Oriole for the last several years. Nothing about this occurrence and this sighting wasn't weird, but nothing about it wasn't awesome either.

Rather unbelievably, my first and only Oriole of 2013 is an Orchard, seen in central Arizona. For the next few months the birding will only get better and better at Hassayampa, and I intend to return soon. There's always great scenery and seemingly some rarity to chase too, even if you have to drive down (not so) Grand Avenue to get there (*note: there are alternative routes).


  1. All great finds. I was floored by the Orchard Oriole spotting. That is one nice birds. I am exhausted, but might try for a little birding this AM. I love spring break and will be sad to return to the real world....or maybe I'll be happy because then I'll have a normal routine again:) I've been enjoying your adventures. I've exhausted Kathie. We've had it with areas full of people like Boyce Thompson. Trying to located that Williamson's was difficult with people from out of state chit chatting about the nice weather and cute ducks in the water. We missed a possible Veery because a group of loud people came thru the canyon. And I'm with you on the photography bit. A bad shot is still good to have but when you're chasing birds in this fun....dare I say don't always get them posing nicely:) But I think I've come to terms with this photography bit.....if a bird, even one known, poses perfectly for the camera then I take the shot...even if I've taken it a million times. Eventually, there will be that perfect moment. I've got to complete my Oriole set. I still need the Hoodies and Bullocks:)

    Oh and that Trogon..... I chose the VC Hummer, Lazuli and Scott's finds at Patons for the Trogon. By the time I got to Patagonia, 50 people were on the trails looking at the Trogon. And by the time I got to the spot, the bird was gone! And then by that time, I had enough sun:) Next time. Have a fun Sunday!!

    1. nice "bird"....I should proofread first:)

    2. Hey Chris,

      Don't read my posts too carefully; I'm sure they're littered with typos. This week has been incredibly busy, but mostly with a sort of birding business that I will miss very greatly now. I came very close to chasing that Sapsucker but called it off the day before as it hadn't been reported for a while. With lots of these chases, getting in before the crowd seems to be another challenge.

      I'm looking forward to more Orioles now, with Scott's being a particular goal, a bird I haven't seen for several years.

      At the end of the week, I think my biggest regret is not making it for the Yellow-throated Warbler at Rogers Road, as it's closed on the weekend and I probably won't get that bird now, unless another one turns up somewhere else. I chose a trip up north instead, which was also great. Conundrums...

    3. Hola. Back to work again. I am having a hard time locked up at work. I love it all. We are headed up to Flagstaff and the Painted Desert this weekend for a getaway. I am happy to take a break but the listserv is lighting up like a Christmas tree right now. I closed the page and put my head down. For those of us who work, it's impossible to do it all.

      I haven't heard anything about the Yellow-throat but I was thinking about you the other day as I passed by the entrance. If I hear anything, I'll let you know. My biggest regret?? The Rusty Blackbird. My Dad came to visit from out of town and I had to play host and yet inside I died a little when I missed this super rare bird. The tourists are in full force right now and it means 4 AM mornings to get those prime 1 or 2 hours of early birding in. Conundrums indeed....

    4. I hear ya Chris...I'm a wreck right now. With such great weather and birds...and mean April is prime migration month and now...back to work.

      Well there are the weekends to look forward to. Good luck in Flagstaff. There'll be some cool new stuff there (new meaning not in SE AZ necessarily). Hang in there!

  2. Ugh! Reading all your spring break birding exploits is making me realize I haven't birded all week. My Saturday fieldwork was canceled due to the organizer's bout with the flu and rescheduled so it conflicts with work.

    If that site is as impressive as you claim it is... why are there only black hawks and gray hawks? Where are the white hawks? the blue hawks? the green hawks? Come on now...

    1. Oh my! Well, not to rub salt in the wound (what a waste of salt!) but this recent stuff is just the tip of the iceberg.

      This site also features Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-tailed, Cooper's, Sharp-shinned, and sm'Owls too. Oh, it's awesome indeed. Ah, so you ask, "Where are all of those raptors in your post Mr. Big Shot?"
      Well, yes, that is the conundrum..

      On the other hand, it seems you're on a higher level of birding than I am. I hadn't even heard of those hawks. Darn. Well, maybe this site is crappy...
      Apologies, you've been not-birding all week and deserve top quality stuff. I shall do better.

    2. The wound from the last post was bad enough - no salt thank you!

      The only owl sighting I've had this month was a battered, plastic owl at a toll booth. (Which of course makes me wonder if owls do roost in toll booths, so it makes paying tolls on a daily basis a bit better in that it gives me something to look forward to). Which I might end up posting just to have a post!

      I do love the Vermillion Flycatcher - I think at this point I'd recognize him when I saw him - thanks to birding through you. When I next return to AZ, I'll be sure to screen all my prospective birdingpals to see if they can find me a Vermillion Flycatcher.

    3. Well, we all do our best.
      If your birdingpal can't promise you a Vermillion, you dump their sorry behind!

    4. Tell me.... would it be like writing in to ask for a American Robin?

    5. Well, if you're visiting Phoenix March-August, the Robin would be the much rarer find around Phoenix.
      I promise, if you come back to AZ for some birding, we'll gawk until you're sick of them, (this will require quite a bit of gawking.)

    6. Is this a date? I didn't even use the birdingpal site yet!

    7. Well, I'm happily married, but I'll bird-date anybody, as birdingpals can attest : )

    8. Excellent! I have something to look forward to... beyond finishing this synthesis paper that has kept me staring at the computer all night and not birding all day. I'll add it to my Bucket List: bird-date Laurence Butler.

  3. An Orchard Oriole in AZ? I did not even know this species existed until a few years ago, and I only got a distant view of one in West Virginia! I can't even imagine being that close to one! That refuge sounds amazing! That name sounds impossible! Chris and I saw the sapsucker at Boyce, but it was being harassed by a nesting Cooper's hawk and we were hoping and praying it would not become Cooper Hawk dinner! Love the Vermilion. I have been observing their flight displays at my own local park!

    1. The Vermilions really seem to be vamping it up this spring!

      Yes, the Orchard Oriole sighting was totally bizarre. I mean, we were in the middle of master-planned community suburbia (not that that's bad, it's just a place you expect to see a pretty rare bird) and the bird was just hanging out there. Definitely one of the weirder sightings I've had this year. It was great, but very strange, almost feeling unreal.
      I'll admit, it didn't have the same resonating awesome effect of seeing a rare bird out in the wild, but hey it's still very cool.