May 25, 2016: Condors! Oh, and the Grand Canyon.

May 26th, 2016

From Flagstaff to Jacob Lake near the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, our next stop, is only about a 3 hour drive. So we decided that since I’d never been, we could throw in a detour to the South Rim on the way. We got there around 10:30 or so, and I was kind of astounded at the huge crowd of people on a Wednesday morning not even really in summer vacation season. The canyon itself is spectacular, and as everyone says, it’s like being in a postcard. It’s just too big to really grasp. We walked around a bit at the visitor center, and I noticed some birds swooping overhead. Those long, thin wings tipped me off, and a quick look with binoculaArs confirmed that they were White-throated Swifts. Finally saw them for real, and a legitimate lifer. I also had a mammal lifer, Cliff Chipmunk, who was hanging around waiting for crumbs while we ate. Don’t worry, we didn’t feed the animals. No desire to get the plague.

Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon

Cliff Chipmunk

After lunch at the visitor center, we headed east to Desert View, where we had some nice photo ops. Peggy and I climbed to the top of the Watchtower, an interesting early 20th century faux-indigenous bit of architecture. You can see the San Francisco peaks back in Flagstaff from the top floor.

Grand Canyon

The main event for the drive, though, was to cross the Colorado at Navajo Bridge and look for California Condors. I’d checked it out in ebird in advance, and that’s the most reliable spot on our whole trip to see them. I was really a little worried that we wouldn’t see them and it would be a big disappointment. I needn’t have been. We pulled off in a parking area on the east side of the river, from which you can walk out onto the old bridge, now a pedestrian span. As soon as I got to the foot of the old bridge, I could see a group of guys with giant telephoto lenses all looking at the same spot on the canyon wall, and I knew that the condors must be there.

Sure enough, two condors were perched on a much-guano-stained ledge. Everyone got to see them very well, and I took way too many pics, and then one of them launched himself off the rock and soared over to the bridge. I managed to get a shot of him in flight, and then a nice close one leaning too far over the railing. Me, that is, not the bird. Then the other condor also flew, and I got a couple of shots of that one starting to take off. All in all, it was a very satisfying experience.

California Condor

California Condor

California Condor

At Hamner’s insistence, I did the Chicken Dance on the bridge while he photographed me. Another lifer, bringing my total to 515 — 34 in the past week on this trip.

Chicken Dance

We drove on to the Jacob Lake Inn, where we’re staying the next two nights. It sits right in the pine woods, so I have hopes for woodpeckers. Tomorrow to the North Rim.

May 24, 2016: Oak Creek Canyon

May 24th, 2016

After a relatively late night at the Lowell Observatory, I still managed to get out to Kachina Wetlands again by about 5:30. This time I spent a while in the pine woods, and was rewarded with a Grace’s Warbler way up in the treetop. Walking around the edge of the area, I found another lifer – Mountain Chickadees — but they were a bit too active to get a good pic. But nearby in a dead tree, an Osprey perched for quite a while.

Osprey

After breakfast, we headed out for Oak Creek Canyon and Sedona. The view from the Vista is pretty stunning:

Oak Creek Canyon

And then we headed down into the canyon. We were surprised at how crowded all the parking areas were on a Tuesday morning, but we were able to stop in a few spots. We spent a couple of hours at Banjo Bill picnic area, which turned out to be both lovely and quite birdy.

Oak Creek Canyon

One of the first birds we saw in the parking lot was an Acorn Woodpecker.
Acorn Woodpecker

I also got a good view of a Virginia’s Warbler, but the only pic I could get was less than stunning.

Virginia's Warbler

Trust me, that’s the right bird. I had seen in ebird that someone saw 4 Painted Redstarts in Oak Creek Canyon just the day before, so I was really hoping for one. When we walked a path a little way upstream, we found them pretty quickly. Unfortunately these warblers are insanely active. I have a whole bunch of shots of branches and rocks that Painted Redstart was on just a second before I pressed the button. About the best I could get is this one:

Painted Redstart

Eventually we went on to Sedona, where we had Mexican food for lunch (and took forever to find a parking place). After lunch, we decided to pass on the Institute for Brain Education or getting our chakras read, and instead went back northward to Slide Rock State Park.

It’s supposed to be a good place for American Dipper, but we dipped on the dipper. (Sorry). We did see Black Phoebes and Cassin’s Kingbirds, though. Another great spot. We weren’t dressed for swimming, and it was frankly a little cool for it anyway, but lots of people were okay with it:

Slide Rock State Park

We just did some light hiking and called it a day.

Slide Rock State Park

May 23, 2016: No-Canyon Day

May 24th, 2016

Robin decreed that Monday would be a day without canyons or horses, so after my pre-breakfast outing to Kachina Wetlands, we set out for the Museum of Northern Arizona. It’s a fairly small museum in Flagstaff, but it’s really well laid out and has some great stuff. We started with the tour through the geological and paleontological history of the area.

Museum of Northern Arizona

Then the majority of the museum is devoted to native American prehistory and history, with a lot on the Anasazi, as well as some on Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, and Pai. It had some exquisite textiles and jewelry. And this modern Kiva mural done specially for them by two Hopi artists.

Museum of Northern Arizona

Afterward, we went back to the hotel and rested for a while, and then in the early evening we went to the Lowell Observatory. Pluto was discovered here, and a lot of early work on the expansion of the universe. Peggy was in heaven.

Peggy geeks out with a telescope

May 23, 2016: Kachina Wetlands

May 23rd, 2016

Kachina Wetlands is a waste-water treatment facility in Flagstaff. If you bird, you know that sewage treatment ponds are often great birding spots; if you’ve birded in enlightened places, you know that some of them are really terrific habitats. Kachina Wetlands is one of those. I’d seen it as an ebird hotspot while planning the trip, but I didn’t really know what to expect. You park at the end of a dead-end road through a trailer park and walk in through some trees, to be met with this view.

Kachina Wetlands

There are multiple ponds separated by dikes, some dry and others full; several have islands in the middle, and there are tall pines surrounding the area as well as on the islands. Cattails fill a lot of the ponds, while the dry areas have tall grasses and scrub. Loads of good habitat.

First lifer of the morning was Pygmy Nuthatch, which, though close to me in some pines, was too active to catch for a photo. Next I saw a splash of yellow in the cattails and heard an unfamiliar harsh call — Yellow-Headed Blackbird. This one is hard to miss.

Yellow-headed Blackbird

I also got another chance to see Eared Grebes, as well as a Pied-Billed Grebe with a bunch of fuzzy young.

Eared Grebe

Some Canada Geese had babies foraging right on the trail, and they weren’t getting out of my way at all. One adult just stood there and hissed at me while I went by.

I had promised to be back by 7:30 for breakfast, so I was heading back when I heard an unfamiliar sparrow song in the tall grass. I looked, and I could see the bird way out there perched on a stick. Somehow I dredged up Vesper Sparrow (studying calls in advance paid off?) and I played the song to check. Matched perfectly, and next thing I knew he was perched right next to me and singing.

Vesper Sparrow

On the way out, I also saw a Say’s Phoebe — not a lifer, since I saw the one that showed up in St. Gen county earlier this year. And finally, just as I was getting back to the car, a little flash of blue in a pine tree turned out to be a Western Bluebird. Four lifers before breakfast.

May 22, 2016: Chinle to Flagstaff, and a lost bird

May 22nd, 2016

I got up a little before 6 this morning and drove back to Mummy Cave overlook, because I had just a glimpse of a bird that could have been a warbler of some kind when we were there before. It was a lovely drive out, and I was thinking about people in the area coming out the doors of their hogans to face the rising sun and scatter pollen. I got to the overlook just after dawn, and got to see the rising sun just lighting the rim of the canyon while the just-past-full moon set in the west.

I couldn’t find my mystery bird, but the swifts were still active along the cliff face, and even coming to perch. I unlimbered the camera, hoping to get a good shot of my 500th bird species. Then I got a better look. While preparing for the trip, I’d thought about how you tell a White-throated Swift from a Violet-Green Swallow, both of which have white that wraps around from the undertail up to the sides. Obviously I hadn’t thought quite enough, or else I was just too willing to believe in a new bird yesterday. I did get a photo of one; it’s not great, but it’s plenty good enough to show that it’s a Violet-Green Swallow and not a White-throated Swift.

Not a swift

So, I’m down to 501 species total, and my 500th was actually the Rock Wren. And one consolation is that I got some very good pics of the Rock Wren. So, here is my (new) 500th bird.

Rock Wren

I got back to the hotel in time for a nice breakfast of blue corn pancakes, and then we packed up and headed south. Our first goal was Petrified Forest, but I did get the rest of the group to agree to a side trip to Ganado Lake, in hopes of a Western Grebe. No such luck, but some Avocets and ducks, with a whole lot of coots and a few Ring-Billed Gulls.

Then on to Petrified Forest. I’d never seen the place, and I didn’t really know what to expect. The sheer number of fossilized tree trunks is astounding. We had a good time looking at the Painted Desert.

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Then we walked a short trail at Crystal Forest and marveled at all the huge trunks, now turned into agate and crystals. And some cool flowers as well.

Petrified Forest

Petrified Forest

From Petrified Forest our next stop was to be Meteor Crater, but we needed some lunch badly. We wound up going to Mr. Maesta’s in Holbrook, AZ — this place appears to be the original Cracker Barrel, with old photos covering the walls and rusty toy tractors and such hanging from the ceiling. I had a red chile chimichanga that was the best chimi I’ve had in years. And better yet, they had beer!

We finally got to Meteor Crater at maybe 3:30 or so. It was getting pretty hot, and we were tired, but we had to see it. It is pretty astounding — hard to appreciate the size of it even when you’re looking at it. I was perplexed by all the space program memorabilia until I found out in their museum that the Apollo crews trained there — closest thing they could find to a lunar crater.

Meteor Crater
Hamner and Peggy are in this photo, but they look like ants.

From there, it’s only a little more than 30 minutes to Flagstaff, and it’s a remarkable transformation as you go from scrawny desert scrub to tall pine forest all of a sudden. We’re in Flag for three days now, so there should be time for a variety of expeditions. Meanwhile, I could use another beer.

May 21, 2016: Horseback

May 22nd, 2016

After lunch, we went back to Tso’s to see if we’d have any more luck with getting a horseback tour. This time they were ready for us, but there was some dithering around and waiting for another group to join us. While we waited, I spotted a yellow bird directly overhead in a big cottonwood, which turned out to be a Western Tanager – another lifer. Finally we were assigned our mounts. As an inexperienced rider who is also a little old man, I got a horse named Perky, I think the same way Little John got his name. He showed very little interest in anything except finding a shady place with grass and following Hamner’s horse with his nose in its butt. Peggy, as the experienced rider in the group, got to ride a mare who had a little colt, who got to come along for practice.

Canyon de Chelly

The trail leads right up through Chinle Wash, which at the moment is pretty full, so we did a lot of wading. As we progressed into the canyon, the walls got higher on each side of us. We stopped at one spot to look at petroglyphs, including the first real example of Kokopelli I’d ever seen. In the Chinle region, he’s depicted lying on his back.

Petroglyphs with Kokopelli

Finally I noticed a ledge with an overhang to our left that held a group of stone structures. We pulled up on the bank to look. This was “First Ruin”, so called because it’s the first one you come to on your horseback ride.

Canyon de Chelly

We passed various corrals and hogans, and even some apparently wild horses. The canyon is beautiful, full of green grass and cottonwoods with the spring rain and snow melt. The walls were often hundreds of feet high above us. Every once in a while there would be a jarring reminder that we’re still in the modern world as a pickup truck with the bed full of kids would pass us driving in.

We stopped at one point to look at a big rock face with a dark surface and hundreds of petroglyphs carved in it – “Newspaper Rock”. Shortly thereafter, we reached the junction of Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto, and turned right into the former.

Canyon de Chelly

I was getting a bit sore on the backside, and my knees were really feeling the strain, when we finally stopped at the turnaround point. When I helped Robin off her horse, she looked awful. Turns out in the last hoalf hour or so she’d started to feel really bad. I think she was dehydrated and possibly low on blood sugar as well. One of the young women in our party was a nurse, and started attending to her with entergy gels and water, and Hamner talked to our guide about getting her a ride out. Coincidentally one of the guys in that group had hurt his back, and also needed to bail. By the time we left, Robin was feeling a bit better, and we left her resting and waiting for a pickup truck.

On the way back my horse was rejuvenated, surpassed only by the two horses that were returning riderless. At times he broke into an ass-punishing trot. The pickup passed us going in, and a while later, going out Robin smiled and waved, so it appeared she was doing better. Here you see Hamner, Peggy, the colt, and a riderless horse in memory of our fallen comrade.

Canyon de Chelly

We got back about 6PM and creakily dismounted. By the time we got back to the hotel, I was wondering if I’d be able to walk the next day. As Hamner pointed out, not being able to have a beer after that ride was cruel in the extreme. We made up for it by eating a lot and turning in very early.

Sunday, to Flagstaff.

May 21, 2016: Canyon de Chelly

May 21st, 2016

I woke up when it got light as usual, and went outside to look for birds. Too windy to really see much around the hotel, but I did find an Orange-Crowned Warbler and a couple of female Cassin’s Finches. We all met for breakfast and then headed to Tso’s Horse Tours, where we had made a reservation to take a 4-hour horseback ride up into Canyon de Chelly. Well, all their horses and guides were out. We’re sorry. Maybe you could come back at 1 PM? Robin was ticked; I just figured it was a laid-back operation, and we’d come back.

So we went to the visitor center and got a map of the overlooks, and decided to do the North Rim. This actually looks into Canyon del Muerto, which is the other fork from Canyon de Chelly, but it’s better lit in the morning. And there are several ruins and nice views.

At our very first stop, at Antelope House overlook, I saw a black-and-white bird soar by below us in the canyon, and although it was only a glimpse, I knew it had to be a White-Throated Swift. If I was sure, it would be life bird #500. I was reluctant to call it on a glimpse, and we continued to take pictures of the views.

Antelope House ruin:

Canyon de Chelly

The view:

Canyon de Chelly

Next we moved on to Mummy Cave. (The turn-off is labeled “Mummy Cave and Massacre Cave Overlooks”. Peggy said “Those are great names for kids.”. I said “You mean like Nick Cave could name his kids Massacre and Mummy?” She actually meant that kids would like the place names.) At Mummy Cave overlook, I saw a soaring bird come right up out of the canyon and over our heads, and got it in good binocular view. White-Throated Swift for sure. I did the chicken dance for my 500th life bird. Everyone else was going “where is it?” And Robin said “Is that one there?” We looked, and a raptor came soaring up out of the canyon and right over us — Peregrine Falcon! A beautiful view, and I think only the 2nd or 3rd one I’ve ever seen.

Then people wandered off to another overlook, but I was chasing a chip note in the bushes, and out popped two Rock Wrens! #501, and I played their call to get a better look since they were close. One of them came right out and flitted from perch to perch all around me. I missed some good photo chances because he was too close to get a pic, but I did get a few decent ones.

Rock Wren

Eventually we headed back to the visitor center to eat lunch. Robin wasn’t feeling very good all morning, but she wanted to do the horseback ride anyway. That story next.

Albuquerque to Chinle

May 21st, 2016

Acomita Lake

We took off right after breakfast this morning and headed west. We had a pretty ambitious plan, as we wanted to visit Robin’s old home town of Grants, New Mexico, go to the Zuni Pueblo, and then end up at Chinle so we could visit Canyon de Chelly the next day. First, though, I wanted to stop before Grants at Acomita Lake. According to ebird, it was one of my best chances for a Western Grebe on the trip.

It appears that Acomita Lake is part of an attempted housing development. There’s a small lake with a dam at its base surrounded by dirt “streets” laid out in a grid. And maybe a dozen houses plus a place to get fishing permits. Nevertheless, when you put a bunch of water in an arid landscape, birds flying over decide to drop in. We parked, I carried the scope down to the shore, and I could see that there were waterfowl out there. The first thing I saw was a group of Ruddy Ducks, which are familiar enough, but a couple were maes in breeding plumage that I don’t normally see at home. Then I saw something larger and lankier behind them just as it dove under. When it popped back up, it was an Eared Grebe in lovely breeding plumage, and a lifer.

At the upper end of the lake there were shorebirds in the shallows, too far to make out with the scope, so we moved down there. That turned out to be American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts. All in all, even if there weren’t any Western Grebes, it was a nice outing.

American Avocet

Next we headed down to the Zuni Pueblo, which was a substantial detour to the south. Worth it from Robin’s perspective, because she wound up buying an alarming amount of jewelry. Beautiful place; I’ll have to see if I can get one of her pics.

We then drove north to Chinle and our hotel. Nothing too remarkable, except that we are now definitely in Raven territory — big black birds you see from the road are almost always Common Ravens and only rarely American Crows.

Chinle doesn’t boast a whole lot of amenities. The Holiday Inn is fine, and it has a restaurant, but if you want to eat elsewhere you’re looking at Burger King or Church’s. We also discovered to our dismay – mine and Hamner’s, at least – that you can’t get alcoholic beverages here, it being the Navajo Nation. Hamner and I looked at the map to see if we could sneak some in from across the border, and from Chinle you’re looking at about 50 miles in any direction to get a beer legally. Oh, well.

In the morning we ride horses to Canyon de Chelly.

Embudito Canyon

May 20th, 2016

Embudito Canyon

So I drove out to Embudito Canyon, over on the east side of Albuquerque, in the dark, relying on Google Girl to find my way. Eventually I wound up in a high-priced suburb in the foothills, and a residential street that ended at a pair of locked gates. The signs declared it to be Embudito Canyon, but also that it opened at 7 AM. So I parked on the street, hoping not to get towed, and walked in.

It was still too dark to see birds, but I could hear them everywhere. It’s so frustrating to be in a new place, looking for new birds, and to be able to hear them a20ll around you but not identify them. I knew that any local birder would be racking up a substantial list just standing there. But I just sat on a curb in the parking lot and wondered what they all were. I’ve been listening to calls from Stokes Western Birds, but I don’t know many well enough to identify by sound. Still, pretty soon I realized that one of them had to be a thrasher. And when I played back the Curve-Billed Thrasher call on my phone, it was a good match.

Now I just needed to wait for it to get lighter. I walked a little way out on the trail, until it was obvious that the bird was very nearby somewhere. Finally, after maybe 20 minutes or so, I realized that it was perched right on top of a bush in front of me — and it was indeed a CBTH. It turned out later that they were quite bold, and one that had a nest in a cholla cactus just sat on top of the plant and sang at me while I took pictures.

Curve-Billed Thrasher

My first lifer of the trip!

All told, in about 2 1/2 hours I had 9 lifers there:

Scaled Quail
Broad-tailed Hummingbird
Gray Flycatcher
Bushtit
Cactus Wren
Curve-billed Thrasher
Black-chinned Sparrow
Black-throated Sparrow
Canyon Towhee

I’d say the Gray Flycatcher was the one I was proudest of. I sat on a rock in the trail, and by this time there were occasional runners and dog-walkers going by. But in a quiet moment, I saw some movement in a nearby thicket of bushes. It was clearly an Empidonax flycatcher, and though I played calls, it wouldn’t sing back. I was about to give it up as Empid sp. when I remembered to check Sibley – and sure enough, there was only one likely Empid here that would be pumping its tail like a phoebe. So, Gray Flycatcher.

I had promised to get back by 9, so I power-walked back to the parking lot, having gone about a half-mile into the hills. Time for breakfast (huevos rancheros, of course) and then the Rio Grande Nature Center.

Albuquerque

May 20th, 2016

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We got into Albuquerque on Wednesday afternoon, and our hotel is near Old Town. So we walked around a bit, and then headed for the Cocina Azul, which I’d seen well recommended. On the way we passed a house with these guys in its yard. No clue.

We had some really great green and red chile at the Cocina Azul. The carne adovada is excellent too. We were sadly too stuffed to eat sopaipillas after.

Thursday morning I got up about 4:30 and drove out to Embudito Canyon, the first of my target areas. More on that later.