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).