On Superbowl Sunday while everyone else was preparing for a day long marathon of football and parties Chris and I were up before dawn and headed east on I-10. Our destination was Greenlee County along the New Mexico border, where I had noticed on eBird that not one bird list had been submitted so far this year. Since Greenlee County is about 160 miles form Tucson we decided to bird our way there. Our first stop was in Willcox, AZ.
As we drove into town the streets were deserted except for the birds which were already on the move. We pulled over to the side of the road to count birds when we saw a long line of Sandhill cranes winging their way overhead. On the streets around us only pigeons, doves, and house sparrows fluttered about on their morning rounds. It was quite different as we pulled onto the road to Lake Cochise and Twin Lakes Golf course. We started counting sparrows, hawks and meadowlarks on our way to the lake. On the old golf course green a huge flock of American widgeons was grazing. Nearby a thrasher sang from a tree. Thick gray clouds hung low over Lake Cochise as we drove up onto the dirt road to see what we could see.
We left Lake Cochise around 9:00 and stopped at a truck stop in town for a quick breakfast. Then we were on the road again and headed north on route 191 for Safford. Of course we kept our eyes open as we drove to count birds along the way. we did pull off the road once to identify a hawk sitting on a utility pole. In the same area there were also some doves and ravens. Our first official stop was an eBird Hotspot called Dankworth Pond, which is also a State Park, but as we drove down the road counting birds we were surprised to find the entrance gated and the park closed. We would have gotten out to count birds along the roadway but on one side of the road a large yard was fenced with chain link and behind the fence a virtual herd of Rottweiler's barked and lunged at us, so we turned around and left.
If the Rotties scared us away at Dankworth Pond, it was all peace and calm as we drove into Roper Lake state Park. Here the snow covered slopes of Mount Graham towered benignly over us. A sky as soft and gray as a dove’s breast nestled over the landscape. We pulled into a parking lot and exited the car, excited to continue counting birds. We had already started counting as soon as we crossed the entrance and stopped to pay the small entrance fee.
We found this little bridge across a small creek. In the trees beyond finches and kinglets fluttered about. We soon discovered why. One of the RVer’s had set out some bird feeders! This made me think of my friends Dawn Fine and Gaelyn, who both live in RV’s full time and also feed the birds! I couldn’t help but think that they would love it here!
Our world today was one of gray and rust as the dry grasses and reeds bent in the wind. In these same reeds Black-crowned night herons hid. In some of the little coves we found Green-winged teal. We thought we saw a some sort of shore bird along one muddy inlet but we could not get close enough to ID it because of the mud! Chris started to sink in! So, we kept our distance and counted from the higher banks.
I saw a hawk perched in this lone tree which looked like a Ferruginous Hawk. As we drove closer to get a better view it took off just as a flock of Common Mergansers flew in and settled on the lake beside us. We got distracted by the mergansers and totally missed the hawk shot, only to discover later that a Ferruginous Hawk has never been counted in this area! Too bad! Of course I have been kicking myself ever since!
In the lake before us the mergansers swam and then I noticed a pair of Canvasbacks with them. They are in the front of the mergansers on the right hand side in the photo above. If you click on the photo you can enlarge it for a better view.
Since it was long after noontime Chris and I decided we needed to get going for we still had Greenlee County to get to. On our way out of the park we spotted these Brewer’s Blackbirds up on the wires. Chris had picked up a list of common species seen at the lake from the visitor’s center on our way in. Brewer’s Blackbirds were not on that list, and of course, at first we considered grackles or Red-wings, but these birds did not have the long wedge-shaped tails of grackles or the shorter tail of red wings. Plus, if you look very closely at the photo you can just see a bit of the hint of their white eyes. Red-wings do not have white eye but Brewer’s do.
Before we left Graham county we drove around the streets of Safford counting birds. Thankfully there are a few eBirders in this county counting birds, but I found it fascinating that no one had recorded pigeons in this county yet and they were all over town. As a result, Chris and I have the first record of Rock Pigeons in Graham County for this year! I feel this is important, because you do not have a complete picture of the birds in an area unless you count them all! Most bird counts are done at eBird Hotspots. I like to count there, but I also submit counts from parking lots and town parks as well, or even just from driving the streets!
We pulled off into the picnic area at a spot called Three-way where there is also a ranger station. I have been here before and counted birds and it proved to be a good spot today. We saw dozens of sparrows here, as well as a Northern Harrier and a Say’s Phoebe. These were out first species for the Greenlee County list!
We followed the road north into Clifton and counted birds along the way, stopping at a small park near a railroad track and a river where we actually found a Lincoln’s Sparrow and a Black Phoebe, among other birds!
On through Clifton we traveled until we reached Morenci and the Morenci mine. Up and up we drove with numerous switchbacks and curves. soon the mine was all around us and still the road continued. I have only been here one other time with Gus right before we moved away in 2010. As we neared the top I could see where the mine has spread even since then, erasing the green forest with the copper and turquoise colored steps and slopes of open pit mining. These gorgeous colors are poison to the earth and we saw absolutely no birds up here where we stopped at the Public Viewing area.
We could see the large trucks hauling ore up the mountainside and I could feel the rumble beneath my feet as I stood gazing out over the steps of the mine. All I could think of was the proposed Rosemont Mine that is set to go in on the slopes of the Santa Rita Mountains just on the other side of Madera Canyon. Will this soon be our view there as well? Will the Rosemont Mine soon chase the birds and antelope from the Santa Rita Mountains and Las Cienegas National Conservation Area? Only time will tell. Rosemont only needs on more permit to start operations. With a heavy heart I turned the car around and Chris and I headed back through town.
I thought we were all done counting birds but when I saw this sign in the town of Morenci I just had to stop and take a picture. It turns out the sign is at the end of a road into a baseball field and park and as I parked to snap a picture Chris heard a Ruby-crowned kinglet in a nearby tree. He bolted from the car to pursue the bird, so I backed down the hill and parked. We were counting birds again! We named this location “Wild Kitten Park” since it is officially called Wild Kitten Field on the park sign!
Every good birding day in Arizona ends with a gorgeous sunset, and today was no exception! This was our view along Highway 191 as we headed back toward Safford. We ate at a local restaurant in Safford, then Chris drove us the rest of the way home. I was exhausted but so happy we had come, even though it did start to feel a bit gloomy towards the end of the day up in the mining towns. And the gloom was not just because of the weather!
- In the Heart of Darkness-Chris’ Post
These are the bird we recorded in all of Greenlee County on February 3, 2013:
- Common Raven-along Highway 191
- Northern Harrier-Three Way
- Says Phoebe
- Brewer’s sparrow
- Black-throated Sparrow
- White-crowned sparrow
- Vesper Sparrow
- House Finch
- Loggerhead Shrike-Clifton (seen along side road by Chris only)
- Northern Cardinal
- Eurasian Collared dove
- Black Phoebe
- Lincoln Sparrow
- House sparrow
- Ruby-crowned Kinglet-Wild Kitten Park
- European Starling
- Great-tailed Grackle
Note: Bold lettering denotes each new location where a new species was recorded. Some species were seen at several locations.
Update! I just checked the eBird Top 100 and another person has started submitting checklists from Greenlee county. Some of her lists are backdated to January 27, so she now has the first bird count in this county, but until last week or so only Chris and my lists had been submitted. There are now 28 species listed for Greenlee County for this year. This is good. The more people submitting checklists, the better! Especially since Chris and I cannot drive over there every week!