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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Arizona and Utah

Fall Migration in the Canyonlands

2021 Narrative

IN BRIEF: An amazing 2,036 miles and 189 species were logged on our latest Arizona and Utah adventure. This tour is designed to capture both the indescribable beauty of a vast region as well as it’s varied and abundant wildlife. With major destinations like the Grand Canyon, Cedar Breaks National Monument, and Bryce Canyon National Park we were exposed to over 2 billion years of geologic history. As luck would have it our group got to witness a young California Condor come to the edge of its cliff nest in Zion National Park for all to see a part of this successful conservation story. The world-famous Navajo Reservation’s wind whipped sand across our faces as we watched the sun set amongst Canyon de Chelly’s Spider Rock. Not to be overshadowed by the famous parks were places like Arizona’s White Mountains where we were able to unwind, relax and enjoy a few days of blissful birding isolation before ending our tour in the saguaro-studded landscape of the Sonoran Desert thousands of feet below.

IN DETAIL: Our first morning we quickly consumed breakfast and loaded up the van to try and beat the heat of the steamy Sonoran Desert. As we headed east through the saguaro forests, we noticed something that wasn’t one of the numerous Common Ravens sitting on a transmission pole. It turned out to be a large Harris’s Hawk keeping an eye out for any unassuming jackrabbits in the area. We quickly pulled over and noticed another one perched on a nearby cactus. This isn’t unusual given the communal hunting tactics of this unique species. While we were enjoying these raptors, a woodpecker called which turned out to be a Gilded Flicker. This woodpecker could explain all the holes drilled into the nearby saguaros. It was either this species, or the Gila Woodpecker pair we saw entering one of the holes close by, that was providing cavities for many other desert creatures. A family of Cactus Wrens was also noted, and a series of Black-throated Sparrows were within feet while singing their memorable tinkly bell songs we really enjoyed. With our sights set on Boyce Thompson Arboretum we were ready for our next taste of bird life. As we pulled into the parking lot a covey of nearly 20 Gambel’s Quail strutted across the road with top knots adorned, and then exploded off in a fury. Almost immediately a male Anna’s Hummingbird zipped by with flame-colored head ablaze. Baby rattle calls alerted us to the presence of a female Broad-billed Hummingbird who sat motionless in between bouts of feeding on the tubular honey suckle blooms. The constant song of the Bell’s Vireo was heard, but interestingly every time we heard it, we seemed to find a different species of vireo. Both Hutton’s and Warbling Vireos weaved in and out of the vegetation as well giving a good lesson in vireo ID. At a perfect people perch in some welcome shade we watched a pair of Ladder-backed Woodpeckers visiting a cottonwood tree, and several Abert’s Towhees with their jumbled calls working their way through the undergrowth. This bird’s eye view also awarded us with close views of the yellow-faced Verdin and warblers including a bright Yellow, as well a Nashville Warbler coming in to inspect us. A Rock Wren bounced around the rocky shoreline of Ayer Lake and on the way out several Inca Doves eventually revealed their presence with their, to some, mournful hopeless songs.

We were then off to Roosevelt Lake, a 20-mile-long wet oasis flooding the giant Tonto Basin. This area hosted a bunch of water birds including very nice comparisons of Western and Clarks Grebes. When seen alone these birds can be tough to identify, but seeing them close together in the scope made us all experts at this task. It’s not every day you get to see two pelagic species in the middle of the desert in the middle of Arizona, but we did just that. A young Sabine’s Gull was spotted almost immediately and as we were admiring that, another bird landed in the water right next to it that turned out to be an unbelievable juvenile Long-tailed Jaeger. We watched as the Jaeger chased the gull around repeatedly right in front of us, continuing its normally pelagic habits of the deeper ocean. This jaeger record is one of only a handful that I know of for the entire state of Arizona and a first for Gila County! We soon left the heat of the Sonoran Desert behind and made our way to Flagstaff perched at 7,000 feet. On the way, the views of Mormon Lake were wonderful as we watched over 200 elk of various ages make their way through the grassy flats fattening up for the leaner times to come.

The next morning, we headed north from Flag with excellent views of the volcanic San Francisco Peaks and some of the over 600 cinder cones in the area. One quick stop harbored a higher concentration of woodpeckers than I’ve ever seen. At least 10 Lewis’s Woodpeckers were joined by several Acorn Woodpeckers as they repeatedly swirled around a ripe oak tree ripping off acorns and taking them away for storage. It was quite the cacophony, especially with the groups of Steller’s and Woodhouse’s Scrub Jays that also joined in this feeding frenzy. Soon after, we visited a tank in the middle of the seemingly endless barren landscape full of water and birds including extended views of Western Wood-Pewee, Loggerhead Shrike, and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. We watched a weaving flock of ducks that were initially spooked by a speedy Peregrine Falcon looking for a morning meal. The flock mostly contained Green-winged Teal, but also had a pair of Cinnamon Teal and a single Northern Shoveler mixed in. Sparrows stole the show here as we were constantly flushing Vesper Sparrows around the muddy edge of the pond. Great comparative views of species like Savannah and Brewer’s Sparrows punctuated long looks at Lark Sparrows coming into drink and nearly a dozen Green-tailed Towhees showing their namesakes nicely. A couple of American Pipits allowed close approach, and several young Yellow-headed Blackbirds joined the scads of Mourning Doves in the tamarisk trees.

Travelers have been stopping at Cameron Trading Post for over 100 years as they pass through the Painted Desert on the banks of the Little Colorado River. This is still popular with tourists and the courtyard of the hotel grounds usually harbors birds that allow very close inspection. Such was the case this year as we had the best views of a Yellow-breasted Chat, young male Black-headed Grosbeak, and a skulky Lincoln’s Sparrow. Despite our best effort, nary a robin of any kind could be found. We skirted the western edge of the Painted Desert and drove by the Echo Cliffs as we headed north towards the burnt Vermilion Cliffs and our next target bird. As soon as we crossed the Marble Canyon bridge 2 gigantic birds flapped twice and were whisked away by the wind downriver. It was obvious they were 2 of the region’s California Condors. Our luck continued when we walked out onto the pedestrian bridge and there was still one bird left with wingtag H7. After our very scenic picnic lunch we headed to the east side of the House Rock Valley through an approaching storm front. As we were holding onto our hats, we looked north and spotted 5 more condors utilizing the free power source as they circled high above the towering cliff face. The long drive into the North Rim of the Grand Canyon disclosed several raptors including good views of a perched Swainson’s Hawk and Peregrine Falcon, as well as fleeting shots of a tiny Sharp-shinned Hawk and Golden Eagle quickly taking off from the remnants of a carcass it was sharing with a heard of Turkey Vultures. To end our day as the sun set at the Grand Canyon, we were treated to a sensational dinner overlooking this vast gorge.

Our sunrise at the Canyon was amazing to see as the shadows grew long and revealed the endless chasms that create the massive canyon. The picnic breakfast at the lodge was perfectly timed with the distracting scenery as company. A walk down Cape Royal introduced lots of Clark’s Nutcrackers frantically feeding on cone crops of ripe trees, and one group of 16 birds overhead wheeled by dropping swiftly from the sky to parts unknown. On our drive back through the middle of the Kaibab Plateau we were lucky to spot a huge white Ferruginous Hawk take off from the ground like a jet and disappear almost immediately into the abysmal forested landscape skirting the roadsides. Just before leaving the Kaibab Plateau a gigantic ornament was spotted at eye level sitting on top of a burned spruce tree. A quick pull-off and in seconds another California Condor, this time number 47, was enjoying the scavenger show as it watched many Ravens and Vultures seemingly leading its gaze to some likely carrion nearby that needed to be torn into. At one point all 3 species were sitting in the same tree giving a nice look at the size difference of these mammal recyclers. The van headed north ascending the Grand Staircase and a strategically placed overlook showed millions of years of geologic history in layer cake fashion with the Gray, White, Pink, and Red levels nicely on display. Zion National Park with its towering thousand-foot rusty sandstone cliffs was a joy for us all. We meandered along the river walk enjoying the scarlet monkey flower and fireweed in bloom held precariously from the cliff sides in lush hanging gardens. It was hard to keep our heads down focusing on the river’s edge as we walked in awe with eyes up high admiring this stunning scenery. Eventually we did find an American Dipper that slowly worked its way upstream towards us, slowly checking the boulders and ripples for larval morsels to feed on. At Big Bend we hopped off the tram and were lucky to witness a young California Condor that had recently fledged from a successful nest high up on the cliffs. Unfortunately, the bird didn’t quite make it to independence and instead of being out on the wing, it needed more time to get the gumption to take flight for the first time. An adult was huddled onto the low cliff protecting the youngster making sure it was tucked into the shadows and not getting too hot. The other massive adult sat up nearby intensely watching the show. Hopefully soon this bird would be able to fly away independently and continue the story of this successful species bounce back from near extinction. The Duck Creek area harbored several large flocks including gobs of Mountain Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches, with lesser numbers of Ruby-crowned Kinglets and “Gray-headed” Dark-eyed Juncos. Here a Steller’s Jay did its best Red-tailed Hawk imitation and an actual Osprey splashed into the lake and successfully came out with what looked like a tasty trout. As we were leaving the area a 6-foot-long gopher snake slowly crawled through the gnarled vegetation giving great looks at this beautiful reptile. Cedar Breaks National Monument finally appeared as we gained elevation to over 10,000 feet and struck us all with its colorful beauty. One particular 1,400-year-old Pine Tree is still hanging on atop the gigantic amphitheater of red, orange, purple, and white endless cliffs on this western edge of the Markagungt Plateau.

The habitat around our next hotel in Mt. Carmel often produces several bird species not encountered at this point of the tour. A short walk down a 2-track through the oaks and junipers was our post-breakfast prescription. Here we picked up a few species not seen yet including Chipping and White-crowned Sparrows, and a single Red-necked Phalarope in the middle of a small group of Cinnamon Teal. It was also great to see the plumage and size differences of a Green-tailed and Spotted Towhee pair that foraged in close proximity to each other. Bryce Canyon National Park protects some of the world’s most amazing rock structures. It’s easy to admire the 200-foot-tall hoodoo arrangements resembling the world’s largest organ in opulent display. At Panguitch Lake in the afternoon hundreds of birds were gathered at the mudflats on the southern edge. Many American White Pelicans were admired as they all flew in to corral an unaware school of fish. These huge white birds worked together and slowly dipped their yellow bills below the surface which is very different than their Brown Pelican cousin’s plunge diving method. Other waterfowl numbers were high including rafts of Canada Geese, Gadwall, Ruddy Ducks, and hundreds of Eared Grebes in every plumage one could want. Several groups of Red-necked Phalaropes swirled close to the shallow edges of the lake and a few California Gulls flew by at eye level. We watched a female Northern Harrier work the wind as she slowly paced low over the flowing grass flying evenly with the van. Other raptors here included a dark morph Red-tailed Hawk and several Osprey. Exceptionally good views of Say’s Phoebe perched on a roadside wire were enjoyed, as were several Mountain Bluebirds perfectly perched atop the mullein stocks.

Early the next morning we headed back east along the shore of the massive Lake Powell to Page. A quick stop at the wastewater treatment plant here added Blue-winged Teal and Redhead to our growing list. A huge open-air truck whisked us away up a sandy wash and ultimately to the famed Antelope Canyon where water has etched perfectly smooth flowing walls of sandstone into an amazing array of geologic wonder. After a delicious Texas-style barbeque lunch we continued deeper into Navajo Country. On the way to our next base of Kayenta a large raptor on top of a power pole made us pull the van over quickly. As luck would have it an adult Golden Eagle was perched long enough for us to enjoy it in the scope before taking off south over the endless landscape. Being in Kayenta put us in close proximity to enjoy the sunset at Monument Valley in the evening. The sun setting here provided all with fantastic pictures as the shadows of the mesas and spires became long as the sun was calling it a day.

There are several water spots peppered throughout the area and one such place we normally stop is Many Farms Lake. Although not many birds were on the lake itself, a spring on the eastern end produced 23 species of birds, some of which were new for the tour. As we were pulling up a flock of 5 Sage Thrashers all sat atop the shrubs and checked us out before melting into the scenery. When we got out of the van, a Yellow-breasted Chat was silent but gave us nice views of this normally shy denizen. An Empidonax flycatcher turned out to be a confiding Dusky Flycatcher, allowing a great teaching lesson on identifying this confusing genus of insectivores. Barn, Bank, and Tree Swallows were foraging over the marshy cattail pond and warblers including Wilson’s, Yellow, Orange-crowned and MacGillivray’s all came in for drinks in this parched land. Canyon de Chelly contributed a look at ancient ruins long inhabited by the Anasazi, or ‘ancient ones’. Their descendants, the Navajo Indians, are still farming the canyon today. As we were driving back from our staggering views of Spider Rock, a couple of very obliging Juniper Titmouse were heard calling nearby. We were able to see them quite close, as well as a foraging Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and raucous Bewick’s Wren adorned with gleaming white eyebrow.

We set our compass south to explore the birding hotspots around Ganado. The lake here was ripe with birds and the cottonwood and willow trees peppering the shoreline gave great looks at warblers, sparrows, and flycatchers. Flocks of Brewer’s Sparrows belted their cacophonous songs that seemed like they were never ending, and groups of Vesper and Chipping Sparrows gave great lessons in learning to ID these ‘little brown jobs’. The highlight here was finding a single male Townsend’s Warbler who didn’t mind our presence and came within 10 feet overhead. Groups of White-faced Ibis were feeding in the flooded verges and several Lazuli Buntings were hopping on the shoreline, including close looks at one with dragonfly prey. After leaving this area we sifted through the ravens on pole tops and noticed a white-fronted raptor was precariously perched on a power line. We quickly pulled over to an opportune parking spot and checked out the Prairie Falcon surveying the wide-open landscape. Suddenly it took off in a b-line for an unsuspecting critter on the opposite side of the road, but missed and slowly floated back to a tall post to try again.

En route to the White Mountains we drove through the Petrified Forest National Park. The Visitor’s Center here just off old route 66 was one of the most exciting birding spots on the entire tour. In just 1 hour of slowly walking the grounds we tallied 19 species. Highlights included adding Hammond’s Flycatchers, Cassin’s Vireo, and Hermit Thrush to the tally. At the wetlands north of the town of St. John’s we were greeted by flocks of blackbirds including Brewer’s, Red-winged, and Yellow-headed with recently fledged young in tow. Exceptionally good looks at a roadside Western Meadowlark showed its distinctive features nicely, and we eventually called in a Lesser Yellowlegs affording great views as well. Although not exceptionally rare in the state of Arizona, a male Mexican Duck was added to the overall trip list here and was a lifer for most.

Wenima Wildlife Management Area sits astride the lush Little Colorado River stuffed with trees and shrubs full of food and a nice assortment of birds. The endangered subspecies of Willow Flycatcher was encountered here, as well as a showy male Red-naped Sapsucker, bright Blue Grosbeak, and a perched Cassin’s Kingbird, the only one for the trip. A roving flock of warblers included Black-throated Gray and Nashville, and a bird of the trip was spotted when a Virginia’s Warbler popped into view. Tucked into the lava slopes was a Great Horned Owl whose location was given away by some both  ered Common Ravens that repeatedly tried to attack this formidable predator.  Sipe Wildlife Area is a great place to sit down and relax while watching the hummingbird feeders. Great comparisons of Black-chinned, Broad-tailed, and Rufous Hummingbirds were enjoyed amid the Juniper-studded grasslands surrounding this location. In the shrubby grounds a female Williamson’s Sapsucker sat at length checking the holes it had previously drilled into one of the elm trees.

We relaxed at Luna Lake near the New Mexico border while we enjoyed our picnic lunch. Rafts of mostly Coots, Mallards, and Ruddy Ducks huddled at the west end and no fewer than 6 Great Blue Herons picked through the chest-high grasses surrounding the water body. It was a trip highlight when a pair of Bald Eagles suddenly appeared overhead and one of the opportune scavengers dropped down to the surface of the lake to expertly pluck a fish and carry it off to a dead pine tree to consume. On the way back to Eagar a quick stop at Nelson Reservoir yielded a migrant Olive-sided Flycatcher way up on the hillside actively sallying for unwary insects. South Fork’s volcanic cliffs harbored many birds such as the rare breeder Gray Catbird, singing Townsend’s Solitaires, and great looks at the plentiful Spotted and Green-tailed Towhees. At the campground here a male Williamson’s Sapsucker came in to check out our pygmy owl imitation, as did a bright pink male Hepatic Tanager and migrant Hermit Warbler. The showy Abert’s Tassel-eared Squirrels here are also worth mentioning with their hairy tipped ears and burnt rufous backs. At Sunrise Lake a surprise American Avocet seemed out of place at this water body set at 9,000 feet, while at nearby Sunrise Campground a pair of Red Crossbills investigated our presence, sitting at the top of a spruce for 10 minutes allowing close inspection of their uniquely shaped bills. At Sheep’s Crossing we strolled along the banks of the west fork of the Little Colorado River. Several beavers’ work was evident with flooded willows and small ponds throughout. On one of the hillsides we eventually heard a response from a well-hidden Northern Pygmy Owl. Although we all knew the general area the bird was hiding, it took a flock of chickadees and nuthatches to ultimately reveal the whereabouts of this diurnal hunter. We all watched as the owl’s throat popped in and out with the rhythm of its tooting pattern.

We said goodbye to the high elevations of the White Mountains and made our way back to Phoenix where another suite of birds would be waiting. A quick stop in the Salt River Gorge had a male Gray Vireo spontaneously singing and came right into view. Another stop at Timber Camp added a family of interested Mexican Jays that weren’t scared away by the multitude of child campers and their loud imitations of wildlife. At Oak Flat a native celebration was taking place so we birded the periphery of the campground and were rewarded with close looks at Rufous-crowned Sparrows and the best looks at Black-throated Sparrows one could ask for. Our final stop was at the Gilbert Water Ranch where we added shorebirds including Black-necked Stilts and Long-billed Dowitchers. Just as a major rainstorm was approaching our last new bird of the trip was added when someone spotted the nuthatch-like Black-and-White Warbler creeping along a mesquite trunk, only the second time this has been seen on the tour!

                                                                                                                                                             - Jake Mohlmann, 2021

Created: 20 October 2021