Sunday, April 6, 2014

Chirps and Trills and Mountain Top Thrills

The early spring Gray Vireo photo hunt goes on, and may at this point just be postponed for a couple of weeks. But in contrast to this apparently defeatist admission, this weekend saw some fantastic birding with plenty of migrants and early-arriving spring/summer breeders moving through Mt. Ord. 
This is no ordinary site, after all, being the highest point in Maricopa County. The mid-level scrub and chaparral hosts plenty of Sparrows and what not, (and will soon host the GRVI in numbers even I can find), while the higher pines and oak entertain plenty of warblers, thrushes, and woodpeckers, lending a fantastic splash of color after a somewhat dreary March. 
I set out to Ord this weekend with Pops, planning on a quick look for any GRVIs and then a more thorough exploration of Forest Road 1688 and the summit. Of course, there were no GRVIs on the corral trail halfway up the mountain, but the Black-chinned Sparrows were singing in force.

We took the corral trail laterally along the mountain for about a mile, waiting both with dim hope for a Vireo call and also for the morning overcast to burn off. Chipping, White-crowned, Black-throated, Black-Chinned, Brewers, Rufous-crowned and Vesper Sparrows all made appearances or vocalizations at different points on this hike, and of course this sum total of emberizids was outnumbered by the all-conquering Spotted Towhees. The oddest sighting at this stage, though not exactly the most exciting, was a young Mockingbird that Pops picked out from its little perch just on the ridge. I'm not sure of the elevation here, maybe 3,000 feet or a bit under. At any rate, this is the highest point at which I've seen a Mockingbird. I don't know if that makes me weird or the bird weird. It certainly looked out of place, but then again I probably did too.

With the sun was still taking its sweet time to clear the Mazatzal ridge, we parked near the FR 1688 trail and were immediately greeted by the calls of Black-throated Gray Warblers as they staked out territory. Some of them were very determined, even menacing, with their sentry-duty.

The lower oaks were also inhabited by Kinglets and Scrub Jays, and of course Towhees, but the BTGRs were the most vocal bird as we started the gradual climb up FR 1688.

After a quarter mile or so and the first bout of ponderosa pine, FR 1688 opens up to a view of the west valley and also a steep slope covered in desert holly, scrub oak, and all kinds of other un-cuddly plants. Although we could still heard the BTGRs calling behind us, the dominant noise and motions now came from Blue-gray Gnatcatchers.

These birds were absurdly loud and active on the open, sunny stretches of FR 1688, and we actually continued to see them throughout the rest of the hike, even as we gained another 1,000 feet. No exaggeration, we even had them in the ponderosa occasionally, nearer the false peak where FR 1688 terminates. Gnatcatchers in pines...that's only supposed to happen in Florida. Even the boisterous Scrub Jays seemed taken aback by the Gnatcatcher industriousness.

Our forest road meander turned up Hairy Woodpeckers and Hutton's Vireos, along with a couple fly-by Rufous Hummingbirds and a plethora of Bewick's Wrens. We had no luck in the long-shot Pygmy Owls, but as we neared the end of the FR, where the trail terminated into stickery thorny things and a slope up to more oaks and a few mulberry-type trees we picked up renewed activity.
Fly-over Zone-tailed Hawk and Golden Eagle always give one a little rush, and the adrenaline continued as we picked up our first Redstart of the day, a preposterously good-looking bird. After continuing to scan through the mixed flocks and canopy movement--which turned up handsome Mountain Chickadees and Bridled Titmice--we saw something even more exciting.

What's more exciting than a Painted Redstart? Well, an FOY little gray bird with a yellow butt. We heard a Virginia's Warbler call once and had to do quite a bit of chasing and triangulating amid the steep terrain, loose rocks, and abrasive, shin-slashing vegetation, but finally we were able to pin this pesky little bird down, a photo-first for myself and a lifer for Pops.
Got the call, got the sighting, got the shot. Who needs eastern wood warblers (me actually, please)?

About half-way up the FR 1688 trail there's a turn off into the ponderosa, marked by a semi-permanent campfire circle. There's a game trail here that runs more or less parallel to the forest road but takes the birder through thicker pines and better birding, if one has already maxed out on the mountain side scrub-dwellers, which we had, or wants to escape the chronic, debilitating chattering of Bewick's Wrens, which we did. There were no Hermit Warblers but Hermit Thrushes and Western Bluebirds, along with Red and White-breasted Nuthatches continued the list-pumping.

After 400 yards or so the game trail dumps out around some water basins and an old cattle fence, and here a couple of sycamores, oaks, and other greenery provide exceptionally drawing habitat for the mountain birdies. We had two or three more Redstarts that were happily vocalizing when not busy naval-gazing...

...and an equally vocal Grace's Warbler, which we first picked out by its song and then picked out from its ponderous perch. This was another target warbler for our trek and a solid lifer for Pops. The Grace's is basically a slightly less cool Yellow-throated Warbler, but it's birds like these that will keep us Maricopians from unhealthily envying our eastern birder counterparts too much in the next couple of months.

This Grace's contributed to the overall Call of the Wild and its timing was impeccable, coincidental, or maybe even causal. Many people keep a list of bird's they've seen exercising their excretory systems. I keep the inverse, and if I may list boast for a moment I've got Vermilion Flycatcher, Gray Hawk, Elegant Trogon, Northern-beardless Tyrannulet, and now Grace's Warbler on mine (and in case your wondering, wetting one's pants at the sight of an awesome bird does not count, that'd be too easy!).
After attending our own respective calls, Pops and I made our way back to the car and finished the increasingly bumpy, treacherous drive to the summit of the Mt. Ord. 

The accessible road terminates maybe 3/4 of a mile from the ranger station and radio towers at the top, but while the gated road prevents vehicular progress, birders can happily progress continue along the road and without fear of hairpin traffic. Mt. Ord's summit provides lodging to hundreds of Violet-green Swallows, which are both beautiful and unusually prone to landing/perching as far as Swallows go. Later in the year this area is also fantastic for Hepatic and Western Tanager, and also for getting mutations from being too close to illegally high radio wave emissions.

Props to the Violet-green Swallow for being the only Swallow, other than Purple Martin, named for its physical characteristics and not where it typically lives (how would we like it if we were all named Home Body or Suburb So-and-So?).

While I was messing around with the Swallows and Dark-eyed Juncos along the road, Pops called out my favorite sighting of the day. Grayish body with some dull yellow on the wings, olivey-orange head...I think...I think...oh yeah!

Olive Warbler!!! This is just a fantastic bird, and one that we Arizonans must cherish. East of the Mississippi right now, there are probably dozens of face-melted birders recording 30+ warbler days, but none of them can also lay claim to this beauty. Alright so maybe I'm over-playing it and this bird isn't even in full plumage yet, plus it was shaded, but I still was pretty stoked. It had been far too long since laying eyes on this Peucedramid.

We were also treated to better looks at Grace's Warbler along the service road, which provides somewhat eye-level views of the ponderosa canopies growing adjacently downhill. The Amazing Grace's was joined by plenty for Black-throated Grays and some Bushtits.

As we beheld distant Roosevelt Lake from our 7,000 foot pedestal, we felt the warm fuzzy feeling that can only be kindled with a fantastic morning's birding. Such a glowing sense of accomplishment and success can only be improved upon with cold beer. And it was.