Birding along the Salt River and more

Whenever our lab brings in prospective graduate students, we take them on our traditional McGraw lab birding trip. We always set our goal to beat times year’s number, which was 68 for 2014. Our circuit starts at Coon Bluff, along the Salt River in Tonto National Forest at sunrise. At Coon Bluff, you get a nice mix of desert and riparian habitats, along with a canyon-esc rock-wall. This site gives us a great variety of species and generally jumpstarts our count to around 35-40 species. Then we transition to Granite Reef, also along the Salt River, but where it is deeper and wider. Here we can find many duck species, and occasionally some rarer water birds, like snipes. Next, we head to the Gilbert Riparian Preserve, where we get a few more desert birds and fill out our duck and waterbird numbers. At this point, we are typically in the 60s for our species count. We then head back to ASU’s campus, where we can usually get a few unique species, like lovebirds and acorn woodpeckers to close out our day. However, this year we added another location – the zoo! No, we did not count the zoo birds, but we did pick up a few extra native species at the zoo, which I was happy to add to our list. Here is an account of this year’s trip.


A view down the salt river from Coon Bluff

We set out with a crew of 6 and began at Coon Bluff. This year, we got there earlier than before and beat the phainopeplas up, which was a first for us (we found them eventually!). We got almost all of our traditional species, such as the vermillion flycatcher, northern cardinals, bald eagles, and many others. We ended up leaving this site with 43 species. The big find of this site was a vagrant rusty blackbird. This is a common bird in the east, but rarely found in the west. It had apparently been in this area for a while, but by a happy coincidence, we stumbled along it without prior knowledge!


A view over the riparian area of Coon Bluff as the morning mist settles along the landscape


A bald eagle catching the morning’s first light


A close up of a red-naped sapsucker


A bright red vermillion flycatcher male


The vagrant rusty blackbird (center) and a female great-tailed grackle (right)

Then at Granite Reef, we ended up getting many of the duck species that winter/year-round in Arizona, which was pretty awesome. No rare shore or other water birds this time though. We added 10 species here, bringing our count up to 53.


A group of male mallards basking in the sun

At the Gilbert Riparian Preserve, we started out by adding several city birds, like rock pigeons and house sparrows. Once we got into the preserve, we rounded out our duck numbers and added several shorebirds, such as American avocets and black-necked stilts and a few songbirds, such as the loggerheaded shrike and song sparrow. We found 14 new species at this site, bringing our total to 67.


An American avocet (front), black-necked stilt (center), and a pair of northern shovelers (back-right)


A ring-necked duck quacking away


A cattle egret perched along the side of a pond


On our very brief run through campus, we were disappointed because we could not find the acorn woodpecker, but we did pick up the peach-faced lovebird. We then headed for the zoo, mostly to actually visit the zoo with our recruits, but also to do a bit of birding. At the zoo, we got three more species: common gallinule, green heron, and inca dove, which brought our final total to 71! It was a great birding day overall and we beat our previous year’s number.


The common gallinule we found at the zoo

Here is our complete list of species if you are interested.

Started at Coon Bluff

  • Verdin
  • Gila woodpecker
  • Curve-billed thrasher
  • European starling
  • Common raven
  • House finch
  • Vermillion flycatcher
  • Cactus wren
  • Ruby-crowned kinglet
  • Lesser goldfinch
  • Belted kingfisher
  • Phainopepla
  • Dark-eyed Junco
  • Great egret
  • Black phoebe
  • Snowy egret
  • Rock wren
  • Lesser yellowlegs
  • Spotted sandpiper
  • Red-winged blackbird
  • Red-naped sapsucker
  • Rough-winged swallow
  • Hairy/downy woodpecker
  • Pied-billed grebe
  • Anna’s hummingbird
  • Lark sparrow
  • Killdeer
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Abert’s towhee
  • Gambel’s quail
  • Ladder-backed woodpecker
  • Great-tailed grackle
  • Mallard
  • Least sandpiper
  • Long-billed dowitcher
  • Rusty blackbird*
  • Double-crested cormorant
  • Neotropical cormorant
  • Black-tailed gnatcatcher
  • Yellow-rumped warbler (and Myrtle subspecies)
  • Northern mockingbird
  • Brown-headed cowbird

Moved to Granite Reef

  • Common goldeneye
  • Great-blue heron
  • Canvasback
  • Bufflehead
  • American widgeon
  • Lesser scaup
  • Common merganser
  • Northern pintail
  • Gadwall
  • Ruddy duck

Moved to Gilbert Riparian Preserve

  • American coot
  • Mourning dove
  • Rock pigeon
  • House sparrow
  • Ring-necked duck
  • Canada goose
  • Eurasian collared dove
  • Northern shoveler
  • Black-necked stilt
  • Green-winged teal
  • Song sparrow
  • White-crowned sparrow
  • American avocet
  • Loggerheaded shrike

Moved to Campus

  • Peach-faced lovebird

Moved to Zoo

  • Common gallinule
  • Green heron
  • Inca dove

A different view of the Superstitions

When I used to think of the Superstition Mountains, I would picture a desert landscape with rocky, bare mountains, like this:


Photo credit: Meghan Duell

However, I recently learned that there is much much more to these wonderful mountains than that. For example, I would have never thought I could see this in the Superstitions:


Now, I do not think I am alone in this skewed view of these mountains. It turns out between 80-90% of the visitors to these mountains only go to 1-2 trails: Peralta and First Water, which are both very desert-like and close to Phoenix. To get to the other parts of the Superstition mountains, you not only have to drive further, but you often find yourself on long tracks of 4×4 roads, which makes them inaccessible to most people. It is worth the trouble though!

Meghan and I hiked an amazing trail called Reavis Ranch trail, which can be accessed from Hwys 88 or 60 and leads to its namesake from both directions. We accessed this trail from the southern route, on Hwy 60. It was a beautiful trail, but also quite a work out with all of its ups and downs.


The trail starts out in a more sagebrush-manzanita habitat, with some desert riparian areas. It reminded me of the Mazatzal Mountains in many ways.


We also found many places with snow still on the ground!


After many ups and downs and several switchbacks, we made it to the saddle of the first wave of taller mountains. Once we hit this point, the habitat dramatically changed. We were now entering the heart of the mountain range, and it was full of water and had a great diversity of trees and plants.


We would hike through groves of ponderosa pine forests,


Pinyon-juniper forests,


And several areas that had many emory and Arizona-white oaks mixed in.


And like I said, there was water everywhere. Most of this was probably snow melt, but it also made this hike ideal for backpacking.


We ended up hiking along this trail for about 6 miles, and then turned around. This hike is now one of my favorite hikes in Arizona, and I hope to do it again soon – most likely backpacking! I really encourage everyone to try and seek out this completely different part of the Superstition Mountains! There are many trails that criss-cross this wilderness area, so you can also try something different!