Monday, February 28, 2011

Big Sandy River

Yesterday, David and I decided to spend the day birding around Wikieup.  We both kind of wondered whether it would be worth going in the winter, since our main targets there are breeding species: Northern Cardinal and Bridled Titmouse, both of which were found on the Breeding Bird Atlas.  We decided to go anyway, check out the area, and see what we might find.

A big front had passed the night before and dumped snow on all the mountain ranges (including the Mohaves, uphill from LHC).  Driving through Kingman, we were dazzled by all the snow that had fallen there and in the Hualapais.  Soon we came to signs saying "ROAD CLOSED" and we thought, they can't mean I-40?  But they did, and as luck would have it, the interstate was closed just past our exit, highway 93.

Snowy desert near Kingman
Heading south, we soon passed into the shadow of the Hualapais and the snow disappeared.  We started exploring around Lower Trout Creek Road, but didn't manage to find much birding.  Eventually we made it to the only eBird hotspot in the region, Burro Creek Campground, on a tributary of the Big Sandy.  The scenery certainly didn't disappoint.

After a slow morning, it was a relief to bird a spot with even moderate bird activity.  About 30 migrating Violet-green Swallows flew over in a stream, along with a few Trees; some typical riparian birds were active along the creek.  It was certainly a surprise when a Golden-crowned Sparrow turned up with a handful of White-crowned Sparrows - a new state bird for David and a county bird for me!  I've been checking sparrow flocks all winter looking for this species, so it was great to finally find one.  This has been a very slow winter for Golden-crowned Sparrows in Arizona; the only report I know of was a few weeks ago in southeast AZ.

Photo by David Vander Pluym
With plenty of time left in the day, we did a bit of exploring around the Poachie Mountains south of Burro Creek.  Driving Seventeen Mile Road, we followed eBird's County Birding protocol to see what birds were typical there.  The habitat was an interesting transition zone:  juniper and other higher-elevation plants were mixed with saguaro, creosote and such desert plants.  Most of the birds were desert species such as Cactus Wren, Gilded Flicker, Phainopepla, and Black-throated Sparrow.  There were also some species more typical of juniper woodland, like Bushtit and Oregon Junco.

David enjoying the scenery at a randomly selected birding location


When we reached the Big Sandy River once again, we were a little disappointed with the lack of riparian habitat.  However, we spied a few ranches just across the river with nice-looking open fields with scattered brush, and decided to check them out.  Walking down the road, we didn't have many species, but there were a lot of birds.  A single Mountain White-crowned Sparrow was among many Gambel's White-crowns.  Brewer's Sparrow was an overdue addition to my Mohave County year list.

Our last stop of the day was along the Big Sandy River in the town of Wikieup.  Driving along Cholla Canyon Ranch Rd, we were frustrated by a whole lot of "No Trespassing" signs, but finally found a way to access the river that seemed legitimate.  Once we got into the habitat, we were floored.  Extensive riparian habitat stretches for miles, with tall cottonwoods and patchy understory.  This place seems golden.  It wasn't long before we hit a flock, with more birds than we'd had most of the day.  A harsh scolding call alerted us to a Plumbeous Vireo, rare in winter.  Wandering through the sandy riverbed, we reached another area with budding cottonwoods and good bird activity.  While David was checking out a tree full of Gila Woodpeckers and Audubon's Warblers, I stopped to scan the tops of another set of cottonwoods.  While I scanned, I heard a faint call that I couldn't place.  I figured it must be something really distant at first, but eventually I heard it clearly:  a mournful, descending "wheeeeur" call that I know well.  It was a Dusky-capped Flycatcher, calling softly but regularly.  I called David over and we both listened to the calling bird.  Unfortunately, it was in one of the few areas with a really thick understory, and a solid wall of tamarisk stood between us and the bird.  That didn't stop us from trying to see it, and we crawled through tangles of tamarisk in a vain attempt to see the flycatcher.  In the end, all we had to show for it were tamarisk needles everywhere.

Prior to this winter, there were only about five records of Dusky-capped Flycatcher in Arizona in winter.  This winter, though, one turned up in Maricopa County, then the bird at Parker Oasis (La Paz County) was discovered, and now there is this one in Mohave County.  In summer, this species is typically found in southeastern Arizona but does wander northwest of its typical range.  Rosenberg et al. gives one record from Topock, but I know of no other sightings from Mohave County.

Needless to say, we were pretty satisfied with our day on the Big Sandy, even though we never got to see the Dusky-capped.  More than anything, I am really excited to see what else may turn up in this spectacular area in the future!

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