Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Marcia’s Big Year…aka Marcia's 365 #3

Guest series by Marcia OBara

Follow along this year as Marcia travels around the US in search of birds and freedom in the "Roadrunner!"

Life in a 118 square foot space can be a challenge. For those familiar with a class C motorhome, there is usually a bed over the cab of the vehicle. For me it was wasted space. The seldom-used TV is up there, as well as two shallow storage areas and the bed mattress. There is a cutout that makes the bed double wide, which is removed except when sleeping, so I left that in Tucson. I also decided I did not need the bed ladder so I left that with my sister when I left Birmingham. 

It was nice to have a regular shower, and a bed that did not shudder in the wind, while in Birmingham. Best part of the stay was the crafting of some additions to the storage in the motorcoach. My brother-in-law is a master carpenter and after describing what I wanted he made me a nice storage bin for the overhead and two custom fitted boards to stop stuff from sliding around! He also discovered the battery strap was broken under the steps and helped me fix that.

After visiting my sister, I headed to Point Mallard in northern Alabama and enjoyed a hike through Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. As many of you know, I collect pins from places I have visited. The volunteer at Wheeler could not find any on the display. The ranger discovered the pins were due in a shipment the following week. I thanked them for looking and noticed the volunteer taking off the pin she had on the shirt. She insisted I take it. It was a lovely thing for her to do. 

Mammoth Cave was next on my list. I had visited many years before, and planned to do at least one cave tour. They had plenty of open campsites – dry and no hookups. I headed over to the visitor’s center to see about tours, and while I was in line, a man offered me a free ticket. He bought too many and you cannot get a refund. Another kindness.

Should have read the description – 250 steps down into the cave through a very wet tunnel. Winding, steep walkways and more steps along the way. It was very physical, and I got to see some great cave formations. The next day, my legs were singing an aria!

Highlight of the trail I birded the next day was a Pileated woodpecker. Beautiful, huge and very close to the trail. All the services were within walking distance – 7 miles of walking that day.

Heading out, I stopped at Bernheim Arboretum in Kentucky on the way to Ohio. Great arboretum with a cute restaurant and gift shop.

The most challenging drive of the trip so far was on the way to The Biggest Week in American Birding. Big storms, constant rain and semi-trucks spewing water made me very happy to arrive at Maumee Bay Campground.

Campground here is great with lots of space for each site. Odd though is that only one bathroom/shower is heated…WOW. 


Probably deserves a blog all by itself. The Biggest Week in American Birding proved to be just that. Biggest. Week (well, in reality 10 days but who is counting). American. Birding (oh, yes, birding). Amazing field trips, warblers, knowledgeable field trip leaders, warblers, engaging speakers and workshops, warblers, and a tattoo contest judged by Kenn Kaufmann and Richard Crossley – and of course, warblers.

The towns around the area are welcoming to the migration of birders. Signs are placed throughout the area to welcome the visiting birders.

The organizers avoid field trips to Magee Marsh – so if you wish to visit that area you are on your own.

The field trips are, for the most part, to areas of public access. There were a few to private marshes which are not accessible, a throwback to private hunting clubs. Each van had a leader and a driver. On one trip the van I was in became mired in mud. We were fortunate to have a professional bus driver and she freed us easily with help from the passengers. An interesting sighting on a trip to the lake shore included a snake in a tree. 

Evening programs are scheduled to fit almost every interest. Key note speakers included Kenn Kaufmann, the couple from the Facebook group Birding by Bus and many others. I had a chance to speak with Eliana and Marc of Birding by Bus about how they inspired my current journey. If you are on Facebook take a look at their page and follow their adventures. 

My campsite was less than a mile away and made for easy visits to the Maumee Bay Lodge, home of the festival.  Vendors were plentiful and I spoke with Marcy, the jewelry maker who is always at the Tucson Audubon festival.

For me, the highlight of the entertainment was the birder’s tattoo contest. Some folks know I have several, not-usually-visible tattoos. One, on my right foot, is bird-related and that was my entry in the contest. What I did not know was the tattoos are judged as much on the story behind it as the tattoo itself. Mine was to signify freedom, the end of work and the beginning of my new life. Believe me, the other stories were WAY better. In the end, I was happy to have entered and to enjoy the backstories.

Cape May Warbler

Green Heron

Sedge Wren

Eastern Whip-poor-will

For those unfamiliar with Magee Marsh, it is a migrant trap, on the southern shore of Lake Erie, near Toledo, Ohio. For the first three weeks of May, a sturdy boardwalk accommodates the human visitors, who number in the thousands. You are just as likely to meet an extended family of local Amish as visitors from all over the world. Gold capped men and women act as guides, and are scattered along the boardwalk for the duration of the festival to assist visitors with sightings. One of the photos accompanying this blog was taken with the help of one of the guides! Lifer Sedge Wren.
A brief description related to the weather is needed, so you do not think this trip was all warblers and lifers. There was pouring rain, steady winds and it was so cold I was not comfortable without long johns. There was so much rain the state intermittently closed major roads. Bird trips, however, went on as scheduled, except the birding by kayak. Apparently when creeks flood over onto roads and fields it is not safe to paddle about in a kayak.

I met quite a few new friends and some even asked to follow my Facebook group Marcia365. Hope you are one of those.

About Marcia
Marcia OBara has been a birder since 1984. What started out as a little trip across the country after retirement has evolved into a rather unconventional Big Year.

After 48 years as a nurse, Marcia is traveling across the eastern US in an RV, trying to visit as many birding festivals as possible and birding every day for 365 days! She does not have a goal, but 500 species would be great.

Marcia has been an active member of Tucson Audubon for the past 5 years, joining in for field trips, volunteering for festivals and events as well as at the Paton Center. She has participated in Christmas Bird Counts, cuckoo surveys and her favorites, Elegant Trogon surveys. She was pleased to be offered the chance to blog about her Big Year here and hopes the Tucson Audubon members and other readers will enjoy reading about her adventures. She is also on Facebook in a closed group, so visit Marcia365 (https://www.facebook.com/groups/Marcia365/) and ask to join!

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Learning from Lucy’s

Guest post by Ken Lubinski

Six months ago I had never heard of a Lucy’s Warbler.  But volunteering to do anything has a way of broadening your horizons.  And now I not only know what this small, fast bird looks like, and the habitat it prefers - I also have a role model.

I like working with my hands, and this winter when word got around in Bosque Creek that I brought saws and hammers with me from Minnesota, I found myself building forty nest boxes specifically designed for “Lucy’s”.  By the first of March, the boxes were hung in mesquite trees awaiting the Lucy’s migration. Mesquites are the preferred nesting tree of this species.  Not only do mesquites provide cavities for nesting, but their flowers attract bugs, and the bugs in turn provide the energy the parents and chicks need to survive all the way through the reproductive process, which is difficult at best.  OK – some of the boxes were mistakenly put in desert willows, acacias and even one large creosote bush. What do you expect from a Midwestern fisherman who has a hard time telling an oak from a basswood?  In any case, our intention was to offset a decline in the numbers of available cavities which in turn has been associated with habitat loss. Residents of six other households in Bosque Creek volunteered to help “box watch”.

Now my wife, Sara, and I are enlightened.  The males started to arrive in the third week of March, followed closely by the females. And what do you know – they liked the boxes!  Sixteen of the boxes were used by the warblers.  None were used by other bird species, which speaks highly of the box design expertise provided by Tucson Audubon.

As of Memorial Day, the boxes had provided space for 35 eggs and, eventually, 17 chicks - many more than we expected.   But nature is hard.  Predators raided the eggs in three nests, and we watched as the harsh conditions, including competition among the chicks, reduced their numbers.
That attrition however, cannot be laid upon the shoulders of the adults.  Mothers and fathers both worked tirelessly to defend nests from strangers: other birds, lizards, and even ground squirrels.  And when the parents weren’t defending the nests, they were maintaining a frantic stream of insects flowing into the mouths of the chicks.

Lucy's Warbler defending her nest from a curious Gila Woodpecker. Trail camera photo. Ken Lubinski
Of the many behaviors we observed, one stood out, because it answered a question many birders had been asking for years:  What is the role of the male Lucy’s in nesting success?  It’s very hard to track bird reproductive behavior.  If a parent is out looking for bugs, it might be gone from the nest for fifteen to 30 minutes at a time.  Tree leaves and branches block your line of sight.  But as luck would have it, the nest box located behind our house allowed full use of our binoculars and spotting scope, providing magnified views, sometimes by the hour, of both parents all the way through the process.  Our male defended the nest, fed the chicks, and likewise fed the female when she was simply sitting on the nest, too tired to forage.  A true hero in my book, and an inspiration to all fellow males, regardless of species.  

Ken and Sara Lubinski built and installed 40 nestboxes in a small mesquite bosque in their Tucson neighborhood, the Bosque Creek. They were joined by their neighbors in monitoring the nestboxes and contributing their observations to the larger network of citizen science data! A lot of interesting behavior was observed by this dedicated team, including this interaction between a Lucy's Warbler and a Gila Woodpecker. 
Thank you!

Monday, May 13, 2019

Marcia’s Big Year…aka Marcia's 365 #2

Guest series by Marcia OBara

Follow along this year as Marcia travels around the US in search of birds and freedom in the "Roadrunner!"

Thanks to everyone who is following me on Facebook. Your comments are very much appreciated!

The first day was great fun. I met a lot of great folks in Madera Canyon and have decided to try my hand at some photos. First batch were not bad, so I will keep trying.

A valuable lesson learned while on my e-bike on the road out of Bog Springs campground…downhill and a tight turning radius with a 60 pound bike are a bad combination. For those of you old enough to remember Laugh In, I bore an eerie resemblance to the guy on the trike that falls over sideways. Thanks to Linda Landry at Santa Rita Lodge for helping me bandage the wound.

The first few days were the warm-up for the long rides ahead. A visit to Paton’s was very productive, and I stayed at Patagonia Lake State Park. I began to appreciate a well-designed, clean shower room.

Ash Canyon yielded a Lucifer Hummingbird as well as many local specialties, up close and personal. I also bought a lovely Lucifer Hummingbird pin from Mary Jo Ballator.

Lucifer Hummingbird. Peter Hawrylyshyn

An overnight in Willcox and then off to the playa. The main birds of note there was a pair of Great Horned Owls and several fuzzy owlets. The journey to Roswell NM was not related to birding, just a visit to the UFO museum. Not one of my better choices.

Carlsbad Caverns was the next stop, and was an amazing place to see. I misjudged how long the caverns would take to see and so I was a bit rushed. Right about this time I needed to re-evaluate my timeline and itinerary plans. Too short a time for stops and too long for driving.

I belong to a traveling group called Harvest Hosts. For a small yearly fee I can dry camp (no hookups) at wineries, breweries and golf courses. My first HH stop was St. Clair Winery outside Deming NM. Great wine, food and huge flocks of Yellow-headed Blackbirds were the highlights of that stop.

After a very long drive through miles of construction, I arrived at South Llano River State Park. The park information on the web looked promising and it sure was. Several trails to walk and the location for the first TWO lifers for the trip: Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-headed Vireo. Both were singing and I had excellent looks. My challenge came when I tried to set the GPS for the next leg to Balcones NWR in Texas. No cell signal, no Wi-Fi and I discovered the address I had was incorrect. I was offered the use of a landline and was able to reach the campgrounds–seems the published address does not work and I needed a different address to reach the site. I will leave out the description of the campground. Oh, my...

Imagine my surprise at Balcones when I ran into Gordon Karre, Chris Rohrer and their guide Laurie Foss. That was a nice encounter. I also picked up new Facebook friends for my closed group page.

The road to Galveston was pretty easy. The FeatherFest started the morning after I arrived. My big challenge was unhooking my RV every morning to drive to the venue to catch the buses. Imaging if every day, in order to go somewhere, you needed to pull in your slider to the bedroom, unhook the water supply, remove the electrical cords and stow them, check all the cupboard doors and make sure everything is safely stowed, at 0530, in the dark. Fun times! I also did not take into account the very high parking lot surrounding the community center. Keeps out flood waters and also makes RVs bottom out. I used the entrance the buses used, that solved the problem nicely.

The FeatherFest was great fun. Well organized and lots of field trips. One of the highlights for me was that we rode in buses-huge windows and lots of room.

Not many warblers, but the appearance of a Fork-tailed Flycatcher was a high point. At the Fork-tailed Flycatcher site I also ran into Laurie Foss. I better start looking for her wherever I go. Visits to High Island, the rookery, Roll Over Pass and Lafitte’s Cove were filled with alligators, Red-winged Blackbirds, ibis, pelicans and all manner of Laughing Gulls –and a few Franklin’s Gulls for interest.

During one of the field trips we noticed a small mud pile, round with a hole in the center. The leader explained it was a crawfish mudhole. Left me wondering about how they live, swimming around, underground in streams.

At the Rookery

After FeatherFest I spent a day touring The Strand and Galveston Harbor. Tall ships are amazing.

After leaving Galveston I took the ferry – yep, I did. After watching the bus drivers I realized it was less tricky then I thought. My goal was Sea Rim State Park but it was full and with a very high tide I headed out for Lafayette, Louisiana. An unplanned stop at Smith’s Woods gave me lifer 3 for the trip – Chuck-wills-widow. A call to the swamp tour operator on Lake Martin, LA assured me of a space on the tour.

Adrift in Galveston Bay

When I arrived at the tour boat office, two Cajun gents assured me that I was going nowhere that day. “There’s rain and then there’s weather. This here is weather”. A discussion with the tour boat owner assured me that not only would there be no tours, we were in for really nasty storms. I asked for her opinion about moving on and she asked “do you wanna be in front of ‘em or behind ‘em?”. I left.

Next stop was Biloxi. The less said about an RV park with no bathrooms or showers the better. I did ride out those storms you saw on The Weather Channel.

My trip list is growing faster than I expected. As of April 25, I am at 229.

This trip continues to be great fun. I hope you are enjoying my blogs and postings. On Facebook you can read about my almost daily adventures by asking to join Marcia365 (info below).

About Marcia
Marcia OBara has been a birder since 1984. What started out as a little trip across the country after retirement has evolved into a rather unconventional Big Year.

After 48 years as a nurse, Marcia will travel across the eastern US in an RV, trying to visit as many birding festival as possible and birding every day for 365 days! She does not have a goal, but 500 species would be great.

Marcia has been an active member of Tucson Audubon for the past 5 years, joining in for field trips, volunteering for festivals and events as well as at the Paton Center. She has participated in Christmas Bird Counts, cuckoo surveys and her favorites, Elegant Trogon surveys. She was pleased to be offered the chance to blog about her Big Year here and hopes the Tucson Audubon members and other readers will enjoy reading about her adventures. She is also on Facebook in a closed group, so visit Marcia365 (https://www.facebook.com/groups/Marcia365/) and ask to join!

Thursday, April 11, 2019

I Love Lucy’s

Guest post by Carmen C. Christy

Lucy’s up. Lucy’s first up.

Until this spring, Mr. Abert’s Towhee has always maintained the title of First One Up, pinging out his contact call as he moves around, sharply suggesting to Mrs. Abert’s that she get up and get going. He’s followed shortly by Mr. Gambel’s quail who-Lives-on the-East-Side calling to his morning-grumpy family to come on and get breakfast. Mr. Gambel’s-Who-Lives-on-the-West-Side gets up much later and wanders in with his family whenever and wherever—this flock is far more casual (maybe the dad’s an old hippie). Then there’s the raucous Gila family woodpeckering away, beating tattoos all around the place this time of year, but mostly on the vents on my roof. The little sparrow flock is last up. They argue noisily among themselves, everybody talks at once, and they flutter in and out of bed. It’s hard to sleep past 5 a.m. in springtime.

It’s Mr. Lucy’s Warbler to us. Now that I’ve learned to recognize his three-part song, I can hear it echoing an acre or more away. Today I find him silhouetted black against the lightening eastern sky, high up in a mesquite tree. I can see no color, only movement. His little rounded head busily checks things out between bursts of song, which ring out every three or four seconds while he’s in the mood. He lifts his head, opens his pointy beak, and spreads the news. “I’m here!” Loudly. Repeatedly.

Image by Lois Manowitz

A couple of weeks ago they showed up at my hummingbird feeders, hopping confidently around the edges, clinging with their impossibly tiny little claws, helping themselves to sips of sugar water. These weren’t first-timers. These were birds who knew how to get a mouthful of something nourishing. The male Lucy’s came first, I think. I didn’t know who they were at the time, but I knew they were not my teensy golden-headed Verdins. Too big, more stream lined, with longer tails and wait, eye rings! I love field marks!

If it hadn’t been for Tucson Audubon Society’s new nest box program, I would never have known about Lucy’s Warblers. We bought a couple of their experimental triangular nest boxes and hung them in early March, according to the directions, in appropriate places. A few days later, both the male Lucy’s, with russet red decorating his cap and rump, and the plainer female with no red cap and only a bit of russet feathering, were flitting around in the mesquite where we’d hung a nest box. How lucky to see Mr. and Mrs. Lucy’s clearly house-hunting. I don’t think they’ve chosen the prefab, though. I think they are going au naturale.

Spring in my desert sanctuary along the Rillito River is always full of music and activity. It’s nice to have the old gang back together again. Some overwintered with me, and some have returned from winter vacations, but it’s all the more exciting when new feathered folks arrive. They add to the gaiety of nations around here. Mr. Abert’s can stay in bed. Now I have a new wake-up call to look forward to every morning: Lucy’s.

The other characters in this play:

Abert's Towhee by Jim Burns
Gambel's Quail by Doris Evans
Gila Woodpecker by Laura Stafford

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Marcia’s Big Year…aka Marcia's 365

Guest series by Marcia OBara

Follow along this year as Marcia travels around the US in search of birds and freedom in the "Roadrunner!"

My Big Year is a work in progress. Believe it, or not, there are rules for Big Years. Most Big Years are V-E-R-Y expensive, require a year of your life and include frantic flights and land travel to cram in as many species as possible. According to the ABA website, in order to submit my total the year must start at 0000 on January 1 and end on December 31 the same year. The birds must be countable and be seen or heard by me in order for it to count.

Are you wondering who sets the Big Year rules? The American Birding Association, of course. The very same ABA that splits and lumps species and rules on rarities. So I won’t be submitting my stats to them.

My Big Year will break some of the rules. Mine is intended to reward myself for a long life of caring for others. It is designed to be a reasonable cost, no expensive air flights, and a laid-back effort to see as many birds as possible in 365 days of travel by RV, foot and electric bicycle. My intent is to visit most of the states east of the Mississippi as well as some southwestern areas. I may even get to Canada a few times. All in the ABA area, but the rule breaker is that mine will start on April 1, 2019 (maybe starting April Fool’s Day is not the best idea?) and last for 365 days– at least that is the plan as of February 20, 2019.

Here are the rules I have set for myself:
  • If heard-only it must be a species I know or be so obvious that I cannot miss
  • If others with me see or hear a bird, I will not count it unless I also do so
  • I will eBird every sighting, I will try to submit one or more lists every day
  • I can and likely will hire local guides (unless they insist on taking me out just for the fame that will come of helping me)
  • I will bird in the RV, walking or on the electric bike – or in planes, trains and automobiles
  • In the case of rarities, if an eBird reviewer does not agree with a sighting I will keep it on my private list, not on the trip list – but I reserve the right to blog my displeasure
  • I will not play recorded calls or songs unless not in breeding season. For rare or endangered species no recordings at all
  • I will spish, squeak and make all manner of weird mouth noises, guaranteed to be irresistible to all birdlife in the vicinity
I will drive my 24’ class C motorhome. I have named her The Roadrunner. I will not tow a car, so good-bye to The Bird Car. She has been a great companion to me and I will miss her. My new ride will be a Pedego Interceptor electric bicycle, an adventure in itself.

The Roadrunner!

I will look for as many nature or birding festivals as I can find along my route. More eyes = more birds. Birders I meet will be the best source of bird finding info. I will also ask those following my Facebook page for advice.

The very kind and generous folks at Tucson Audubon have offered to let me blog on their web site. I will also have a closed Facebook page called Marcia365. If you visit and request to follow me I will accept.

I am new to blogging so I will try to keep it interesting, and take pictures. I am hoping my bird photography skills improve or you will all be treated to photos of me dumping the waste tanks.

My early trip will start in southeastern Arizona, head out to New Mexico and to Roswell NM (can’t bird all the time) for some alien viewing. Then to Austin TX for Golden-cheeked warbler and Black-headed vireo. Next stop will be FeatherFest in Galveston. Looks like a great festival there.

I will head for Ohio (bet you can figure out why!) with a swing through the southern states and a visit to my sister.

After 10 days at the Biggest Week in American Birding (I plan to enter the best bird tattoo contest), I will head to New York, and the Buffalo area. The Allegany Nature Pilgrimage will be my next stop and it will be so nice to see old birding buddies and see the wonderful hardwood forests of southern western New York.

Follow me here and on my Facebook page if you are interested. My blog postings will always be after I have left an area and I will not blog about specific locations or dates. Dang it, broke the rule already with festival mentions.

I would love for you to follow my adventures. Join me and let’s see if I can hit 500 species (not my real goal, but every birder so far has asked me my target number) in 365 days!

About Marcia
Marcia OBara has been a birder since 1984. What started out as a little trip across the country after retirement has evolved into a rather unconventional Big Year.

After 48 years as a nurse, Marcia will travel across the eastern US in an RV, trying to visit as many birding festival as possible and birding every day for 365 days! She does not have a goal, but 500 species would be great.

Marcia has been an active member of Tucson Audubon for the past 5 years, joining in for field trips, volunteering for festivals and events as well as at the Paton Center. She has participated in Christmas Bird Counts, cuckoo surveys and her favorites, Elegant Trogon surveys. She was pleased to be offered the chance to blog about her Big Year here and hopes the Tucson Audubon members and other readers will enjoy reading about her adventures. She is also on Facebook in a closed group, so visit Marcia365 (https://www.facebook.com/groups/Marcia365/) and ask to join!

Welcome and I hope you enjoy.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Under-birded Areas in Southern Arizona: Gila Box

Guest post by Tim Helentjaris 

MAP and More info about Gila Box

A few years ago while driving lazily up the back way to the White Mountains, I stopped at an overlook for the Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area, northeast of Safford, managed by the Bureau of Land Management as one of only two Riparian NCA’s in the whole country.

Drainage for Bonita Creek, at Lee’s Trailhead, accessible by roads from the West Entrance or from Safford via the Solomon Road.

Wow, I was stunned by how much water flowed in the river through there, something I just wasn’t used to in Arizona, and the size of the cottonwood gallery. It really looked like some interesting habitat from an avian perspective. Didn’t have any time to extensively bird that day, so I just made a mental note of it for the future as some place to come back to and investigate. So, when Pete Bengtson invited me to take a couple of days and poke around in here, I was up for it, even though we knew the birding this time of year would not be great, it just seemed like a good time to characterize both the habitat and access.

We first stopped in at the BLM office in Safford where the helpful folks there gave us advice and maps. I recommend it as a first stop. From there we headed to the West Entrance via Sanchez Road. As I remembered from my previous visit, the riparian area itself is very impressive, with a good water flow and large willow and cottonwood gallery extending as far as you can see. There are probably six access points here within a mile where one can get close to the river, but this is it, the road doesn’t not go any further upstream along the Gila River. Since it is so incised here, access elsewhere can be difficult and its probably going to take a float trip to really evaluate the wildlife along here.

What we noted was that on the surface, this was all pretty impressive but there was also a lot of bare ground between the willows (which can be quite large) in places. Since the river drains a large mountain area in New Mexico, the heavier flows probably scrub a lot of the canyon bottom clean, carrying away all but the more tenacious plants. Compared to some of the other rivers around here, the Santa Cruz and San Pedro can have a lot less water flowing here but also more and diverse vegetation surrounding their channels. So, somewhat of a mixed bag, and a continuing trend elsewhere along the Gila River: difficult access due to few roads and a very incised canyon, very large trees but less undergrowth than expected. So, with the steep canyon walls, the immediate flanking areas for birds to feed are limited and this is exaggerated even more by the fact that the flanking hillsides above and surrounding the river have a very rugged and tough habitat, very rocky ground with little vegetation beyond widely scattered creosote bush and a few prickly pear cactus and little grass, a trend that seemed to extend for miles and miles from the river channels.

Typical habitat in the hills outside the channel, along the Solomon Road leading to Bonita Creek.

Birds found here in the channel area now were limited to an AMERICAN ROBIN or HERMIT THRUSH, RUBY-CROWNED KINGLET, perhaps a LADDER-BACKED WOODPECKER and at this time of year, YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLERS. On the flanking areas, many fewer birds other than a very occasional ROCK WREN and BLACK-THROATED SPARROW. As we drove the roads flanking the incised river, we were continually surprised at how few birds we could scare up. So, we would be keen to know if this sparseness of avian life would also be true in the summer? Hard yet to see without a few visits then, given how few the eBird reports were from this general area.

After exploring this general area around the West Entrance, including a few different access points and some nice but under-utilized campgrounds, we then backed up a bit and headed up the West Rim Trail for Bonita Creek, trying to get to the Lee Trail area which was highly recommended to us. The good road departs from the creek and winds its way through the mostly barren foothills, the creek only partially visible now and again due to its deeply incised channel, despite its lush riparian nature.

So, is the vegetation primarily limited by climate and geology or by over-grazing? Saw evidence for both, some fenced areas had more diversity and and grass cover but the area seemed harsh in general. At one of the several interpretive exhibits along the roads here, there was a nice discussion of the limitations of this land to usage without supplied water and we certainly noted a lot of rubber tubing along the ground supplying cattle tanks. And we noted that where no such tubing or tanks existed, the grasses actually seemed a lot healthier, perhaps due to the absence of grazing in those areas. Got to the Lee Trail area, the last mile down is a very rough road, taking a bit of a toll on Pete’s Subaru. Bonita Creek is also very striking in its riparian nature and again, seemed to extend as far as we could see for many miles. But again, the flanking hillsides here were pretty barren, both for birds and vegetation. A little bit of birding here produced a similar list as around the west Entrance area. Heading back towards Safford on the Solomon Pass Road, we did run into a fenced area for the mine, which seemed to have just a bit more grass in with the cactus and creosote and were surprised to see a fair-sized flock of MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRDS actively feeding among the prickly pear.

Back in Safford, we decided to finish the afternoon at a couple of local eBird hotspots, first stopping at Roper Lake State Park. Nice diversity of waterfowl here, RUDDY DUCKS, COMMON GOLDENEYE, REDHEADS, WESTERN and PIED-BILLED GREBES, and a number of striking COMMON MERGANSERS. Did have one odd bird flying away from me that I could not parse out, the flight style and shape was confusing, and after hearing a wild rumor about the Ringed Kingfisher being re-spotted, we had to wonder? From there, we headed south to Dankworth Pond, an associated area with again a very nice pond, albeit a bit smaller than Roper Lake, and checked out the additional waterfowl there, our best find being a COMMON LOON. Both places can be very birdy and especially in the winter attract a lot of water birds and often a rarity or two, as especially evidenced by this year’s Ringed Kingfisher, way out of range and Arizona’s first record. A Rose-throated Becard found at nearby Cluff Ranch is another clue that some strange avian wanderers can show up around here and that the area warrants more birder visits despite its out-of-the-way location.

Spent the night in Safford and the next morning, made a quick stop back at Roper Lake SP, just in case the Ringed Kingfisher was really back. It was, but we had no luck in spotting it and I concluded my own mystery bird from the day before was probably just a poorly-seen BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT HERON flying away from us.

So, we headed back to Gila Box, this time to take the Black Hills Backcountry Byway all the way through. Not really following the river, this road took us up and over a pass before eventually descending towards the Old Safford Bridge on the Gila River, another nice area and a primary put-in for those planning to float this stretch of the river. Along here, the hills did not seem so desolate with a bit greater plant diversity, we picked up more species, including a flock of EASTERN BLUEBIRDS, and several sparrows, including WHITE-CROWNED, BLACK-THROATED and CHIPPING. At the bridge and Owl Creek Campground, pretty much a repeat of before, with a very deeply incised riparian system, good river flow and large trees, but a lot of scrubbed bare ground below. Birds here included RUBY-CROWNED KINGLETS, AMERICAN ROBINS, HERMIT THRUSH, YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLERS.

A segment of the Gila River near the Old Safford Bridge, the primary put-in for floaters and accessible via the Backcountry Byway.

So, nothing really spectacular as far as birds in the Gila Box area and associated tributaries, but the scenery was great and it was striking to see how much country is back there that is probably seldom visited by birders. I don’t think we answered our question as to whether there is a lot of avian potential here, but I did subsequently hear from a number of nice folks who have birded in here and were able to cite some interesting finds in the breeding season including Common Black Hawks and Yellow-billed Cuckoos. I would just encourage folks to make a few more summer visits to determine how interesting this area is during the breeding season. For the adventurous, consider floating the river and getting out at otherwise inaccessible places, or just plan to walk it and the San Francisco River and Bonita Creek, not minding wet feet for the chance to see some great country and birds without a lot of company.