Thursday, August 22, 2013

To the Highlands: Sunrise Campground and Greens Peak

We secured the Dipper pretty early into our day, and so with everything going according to plan on Mt. Baldy, we then moved locations--stopping to bird whenever possible--so that we could chase Gray Jays, Clark's Nutcrackers, and Dusky Grouse. These species can also be seen higher up Mt. Baldy, but with so many good birding spots close together and the different sites having high probabilities, we added some variation. 

The next stop was Sunrise Lake Campground and Gray Jays were the primary target. Gray Jays are very hardy birds, having annual populations and even raising broods in the middle of winter in the far northern reaches of Canada. They also live comfortably near people, being opportunists, and as such a high elevation campground is just about the perfect habitat for them. That being said, this area around the White Mountains is about the only place in Arizona where Gray Jays will turn up, so we were still counting on our luck.

There were squirrels and chipmunks maintaining a constant buzz around Sunrise, but the birding was also good, though bird calls were more difficult to differentiate for me. Tommy spotted a Downy Woodpecker--always a solid find in Arizona, even in the higher elevations--, and it was soon joined by a buddy. Although this wasn't a state or even a year bird, it was still one of the rarer finds for the day.

The Downies foraged quite contentedly, not really minding our proximity but not being particularly photogenic either. One of the birds discovered some sort of fungus or something up in this aspen tree, which kept it occupied for a goodly while.

The Downy Woodpecker sighting transitioned into further luck as we followed the foraging birds away from the main road.  We waited and watched the woodpeckers, and while we were so occupied a mixed flock formed up around us. Soon Golden-crowned Kinglets, Mountain Chickadees, and Nuthatches were all contributing to the scene.

Mountain Chickadees, like just about every other Chickadee (except for Mexican) are pretty common in their locale, but I hadn't had a nice photo stomp with them before. I was very pleased to remedy my paucity of Chickadee photos, because I don't know when next I'll be able to get up into the mountains, nor when next a Chickadee will hold still.

The itinerant echoes of squirrel chatter were very frustrating at times. A squirrel or chipmunk trill doesn't really sound like a Jay or Nutcracker, but when there are enough other distortions and distractions, it's just enough to give one continual false hope about what's ahead, or what's behind. Too often it's just one of these smug little rodents sitting on its little throne.

The Gray Jays were not a guaranteed or even common sighting by any means, but I still felt a bit unlucky to miss them entirely, much less come away without any photos. Still, some of the views around the Sunrise grounds were worth the trip, as were the other birds.

We didn't leave empty-handed either, though we weren't holding a lot. This lone, calling Clark's Nutcracker provided a state bird for the site. Of course he picked the tallest, most backlit tree he could find. Maybe he could sense I was unlucky, and didn't want to get too close.

From the campground we travelled up to Greens Peak, which provided outstanding views of the surrounding countryside and also the impending thunderstorm that was coming to cut our birding short.

The main attraction on Greens Peak was the possibility of seeing Dusky Grouse, a secretive but confiding bird if one is lucky. To this day, I have not seen a single member of the Grouse/Ptarmigan family, which is almost too embarrassing to admit in public.
We hiked up and down Greens peak, getting some serious exercise and enjoying the scenery. We had butterflies and frogs, as well as my best American three-toed Woodpecker sighting of the trip.

We also had Kinglets and the occasional Robin, but all in all the encroaching weather and later afternoon timeframe seemed to be keeping the bird activity muted. To take a rest from our hiking, Tommy played a Red-breasted Nuthatch call, knowing they respond well and we'd then at least get some photos for our trouble.
It took a couple of minutes for any response, but soon we were swarmed, with near a dozen of the ruddy little buggers chittering all around us. Plenty of the birds showed signs of immaturity, both in their sense of humor and behavior as well as their patchy breasts. It's not a Dusky Grouse, but it's got feathers.

The Grouse stayed hidden during our tour on Greens Peak, and to be honest I was pretty bummed to miss them and the Gray Jays. In the moment, the misses felt heavier than the hits (Dipper, Williamson's Sapsucker, Three-toed Woodpecker), but in retrospect it certainly was time well spent, and the trip was outstandingly productive overall.

We're not as spoiled in the west as they are in the east with their Thrushes, but hearing a Hermit Thrush singing in the woods is still a very soothing sound, one that was very needed and welcome as the rain started to fall, and the Grouse dream began to dissipate. 

With the time for my departure back to Phoenix approaching, we decided to head back into Greer for some concentrated photo sessions. It was hard to leave the mountain, but it was also a felicitous decision with a full downpour in effect and the need to photograph high-altitude Hummingbirds still nagging at me.