Friday, April 20, 2018

A Salt River, A Granite Reef, A Big Move

The Salt River, a bastion of waterfowl in the winter and back-floating beer-toting tubers in the summer, is probably the most well-known aquatic attraction in east Phoenix/Mesa, except maybe for Big Surf. the river drains from the Mogollon Rim and White Mountains up north, running 300+ miles with its tributaries through the heart of Maricopa County. The river's size make it a great attraction for waterfowl, especially species that prefer deeper or moving water and won't be found on smaller city ponds. Of course, it also sustains healthy riparian channels that grow out to the surrounding mesquite bosque and other Sonoran habitats in the valley.

There are several points of access in Mesa. Coon Bluff is probably my favorite, given its propensity for Vermilion Flycatchers and excellent nocturnal birding, but Granite Reef is another, well-reputed for its passerine pull-downs, including some regional rarities like Rusty Blackbird.
With the Ides of April passed, it's a good spot to look for migrants, early breeders, and the not-so-elusive Salt River Horses.

The horses are regarded as wild, local treasures by some, feral intrigues by others, and introduced nuisances by yet more. Given they have their own management lobby, I don't know how wild they can really be considered, but their ecological impact is indisputable, and not in a "making the world a better place" kind of way.
The Granite Reef area provides a path through mesquite bosque and then tamarisk and cottonwood, plus views of the river itself. Pretty cool to pick up a late female Goldeneye (nice pic huh??)...

...and then turn to the other shoulder and tick LUWA and YRWA. I guess Lucy's Warbler is like the western counterpart to Prothonotary, as Grace's is to Yellow-throated and Mesquite Bosque is to cedar swamps. They are the only two cavity-nesting Warblers, at least hat I'm aware of in North America, and are extremely vocal. I don't know...still feels like we got short-changed on this one though. Maybe it's just because I haven't crushed them properly.

There are multiple nesting Balds along the river too, in fact one nest we observed had a mature adult, fledged young, and new chick all in view. Alas that all I have to show from recent Baldies are these typical distant fly-by shots, seems to be the new thing for this blog.

If you follow the Granite Reed path west, eventually it runs up to the access-restricted dam, but you can continue around to a canal path, without trespassing, and proceed down to the dry spillway and finally back to the river. This portion of the trail moves through chaparral grass that is good for Buntings later in the year, and the canals sustained impressive numbers and variety of Swallows.

Northern Rough-wings were unsurprisingly numerous, while Violet-greens were surprisingly numerous. We also picked up single digits of Bank, Barn, and Tree, along with the expected Cliff colonies by the dam overpass, making for a 6-Swallow day. Pretty damn special!
Below is a not great, diagnostic photo of Violet-green Swallow. Will I derive praise or satisfaction upon it? No. Will I use it as evidence of a first state record for VGSW at a later point in time? Also no.

We spent most of the day looking up for FOY Warblers, Orioles, and fly-bys on the river, but one of the closest encournters came from getting down (and being super patient) with a Green-tailed Towhee that was equal parts confiding and retiring. No Canyon (unlikely) or Spotted (fair shot) to make for a Towhee quadfecta (w/ Abert's) complimenting the Swallow sextet. From this I conclude that birding gods aren't really into numerology.

Diminutive in stature (smallest Towhee) as it is in behavior, Green-tailed is nonetheless a subtle looker, with notes of Olive and Five-striped Sparrow woven into its grumpy fluff. Perhaps because I see them in chaparral tangles, they strikes me as a bird of the rough and arid west: hardy, understated, and yet beautiful in their specialization. They are one of many birds I shall miss seeing often, as of course I will miss seeing many of the other western and AZ specialties.

Butler's Birds will be moving to North Carolina (look out, Wayne County!) at May's end. It shall be a tumultuous time for birding and blogging. I will be trading out western Wren, Warbler, and Sparrow groups for those of the east, trading mesquite and chaparral for woodlands and salt marshes, not to mention trading out careers and boring stuff like that, but thankfully I will have ol' reliable Mourning Doves, plus friends and family, to steady the ship. Such a move brings much excitement as it does apprehension and, of course, mourning for what is being left behind. At some point there will be Northern Gannets, so that's awesome.