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.