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Southeast Arizona 2015

Part 1:  The Drive Out (Lake Balmorhea & Twin Lakes)

Twin Lakes, Willcox, AZ

Wow, what a drive!  A friend of mine was telling me that her husband has reached his threshold:  no more than six hours of driving before he’s ready to stop for a long time!  I almost felt that way today, but I didn’t dare stop for the traditional state park walk as Google said it was pretty much an eight-hour drive to Fort Stockton, and they were right!  Technically, I probably could have stopped at South Llano for a quick hike down the Fawn Trail (but we all know that would have been anything but quick J), plus the plan was to check out Rooney Park, as it was designated a birding site on the GTBT map.  It was way too hot to take a walk anyway, but seeing as we got off at the wrong US 285 exit L we got lost and ran into it anyway, so we swung through and decided it was pretty much a hangout for ruffians (they had a “Speed Bump Ahead” sign where someone had blacked out the “Bump” part, so that gives you an idea…).

But it was an absolutely gorgeous day:  started out with a couple nice Valley birds (Couch’s Kingbird, Kiskadee, and Golden-fronted Woodpecker), and while it wasn’t a “Valley” specialty, a Chimney Swift batting overhead will probably be our only one!  Several Caracaras gave good looks going up the corridor, and even a Swainson’s Hawk swooped across the freeway at eye level!  The only other birds of interest, really, were Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, and although Black Vultures are considered a “Southeast Arizona specialty” in the west, they’re not guaranteed by any means, so it was nice to pick that up on the way.

I was getting a little concerned about the tires after Kerrville, because the speed limit is 80 and it was pushing 100 degrees out there, and the last thing I needed was for one of those puppies to explode!  So at the rest stop I checked again, and they had indeed heated up to 40 again, so I bled them a bit (not really sure why they say not to do that, except that when they cool off they might  be underinflated…)

Things did get kinda slow once we got out of the Hill Country, and it made me think of Randy Alcorn’s admonition that when we have that active relationship with the Lord, things can never get dull because you have that child-like fascination with everything that comes along, so that was good to be reminded of that (instead of worrying about the tires…).  A preacher also mentioned several businessmen he knew who were successful, but something was missing, so they decided to make their businesses count for the Kingdom, and that made all the difference in the world!

As mentioned, made it in fine and advised my friend Norma not to bother with Rooney Park (she and a group from Arroyo Colorado Audubon were heading out to Arizona the day after me)…  But she had mentioned that they were gonna stop by Lake Balmorhea the morning they left Fort Stockton, and that was sounding like a pretty good idea the more I thought about it!

And that’s exactly what I did:  grabbed a muffin upon checkout and headed straight over there, stopping under the overpass long enough to confirm Cave Swallow and record the Rock Pigeons making a bunch of noise…  Got to the lake, stuck my five bucks in the door, and delighted to the calls of both Western and Clark’s Grebes and their chicks!  And I relished in something else I hadn’t experienced since leaving San Diego:  the smell of the wet desert!  Crawling around to the back side of the lake, a goofy-looking Pyrrhuloxia popped up on a bush, and along the back side of the lake was a nice assortment of water birds:  what I’m presuming to be Blue-winged Teal (they were all in eclipse plumage and were quite distant – and of course flew the minute I got the scope out L), a dowitcher, a Greater Yellowlegs, a Great Blue Heron, and even a Black Tern batting by in the distance!  Coming around the corner a pair of Scaled Quail were down by the water, and on the west side of the road was another little wetland with several Black-necked Stilts and a couple of Ruddy Ducks.  Down at the end of the road a Yellowthroat was singing, and a brilliant Blue Grosbeak sat right up on a mesquite!  While enjoying this a night heron, White-faced Ibis, and Green Heron all sounded off somewhere…  On the way out a Black-throated Sparrow sang in the distance, and Western Kingbirds were patrolling.  I think I mentioned the last time I came out here how much this place reminds me of the fresh-water wetlands near the Salton Sea!

Rock Pigeons making noise under an overpass (with both House Sparrows and Cave Swallows chattering in the background)

Lake Balmorhea

Marsh on the back side

   

Clark's Grebe (left) and Western Grebe; can you tell them apart?

Half-grown Western Grebe chicks making a ruckus; near the end you can hear the drawn-out creeee of a Clark's Grebe

More chicks, but in this recording you can hear the more syncopated call of the Western Grebe near the end.

   

A couple more shots of the Clark's Grebe

Blasted west after that, and took the SR 375 bypass around El Paso, which was absolutely gorgeous (at least the western part going through the Franklin Mountains)!  I wish I had had my camera at the ready, and I did warn Norma and crew to do just that if they decided to take the bypass (I think I did avoid a lot of construction that way)!  Continuing on added several Swainson’s Hawks and a couple of Redtails to the day list, along with some ravens that looked tiny enough for me to call them Chihuahuans with a clear conscience!  I had also forgotten that we gain two hours (the up side of Arizona bailing on DST), so after glorying in the first views of the Chiricahuas, I realized I had enough time to scout the Fort Bowie Road and go into Willcox the back way (and still do Twin Lakes)!

I was debating about whether to even include this road after all, as the new ABA guide doesn’t even mention it, but once we got past what I considered the last of the “residential” areas, I started the mileage and we were treated to a beautiful monsoonal storm forming over the mountains!  The road goes into just a gorgeous desert foothill area where a strange call compelled me to stop, and it turned out to be a Black-tailed Gnatcatcher (played the Black-capped Gnatcatcher scold just to make sure that wasn’t it)!  There were “Do Not Enter When Flooded” signs every five feet, and there were actually a couple of cars at the trailhead (in almost 100-degree weather I thought they were nuts…)!  Once into the grasslands we actually had a little more action:  both Botteri’s and Cassin’s Sparrows were singing at one point, a flock of Horned Larks bounced by, and best of all, several Lark Buntings in various plumage flew up from the ditch and perched on the fence!  At one wash crossing several bodies turned out to be a Roadrunner family, so when we got there, I couldn’t help myself: I did the “coo” and one of them actually hopped up on the bush!  One of his siblings rattled from a hidden place…  Once at the end of the road I got out to adjust things, adding Lillian’s Meadowlark (they really do sounds different) and Cactus Wren.  A rancher with some cows pulled in about then, followed by two Border Patrol guys who talked to him; I’m glad to see their presence here, too!

Monsoon over the Chiricahuas

Apache Pass Road, which passes through Fort Bowie National Historical Site

   

Roadrunner that popped up in response to my "coo"...

Headed on in to Willcox after that, where we dutifully did a survey of Twin Lakes for EBird.  It was pretty hot by that time, but on the road going in, got our first real Arizona specialty:  a Cassin’s Kingbird (although Norma reported getting one at a rest stop east of Fort Stockton)!  I thought I heard a chewy-chewy, and when I pished a distant thrasher did show up in a distant mesquite, but he was too far away to ID with certainly (and he didn’t call again); it probably was a Crissal (as I’ve had them there before), but I wanted to be sure.

Heading to Willcox on SR 186

At the lake itself was a very nice assortment of shorebirds:  mostly Avocets and Wilson’s Phalaropes, but also handfuls of Baird’s and Least Sandpipers, several Stilts, a Stilt Sandpiper and dowitcher, and a spit-full of Long-billed Curlews!  I couldn’t pick out a Red-necked Phalarope, but told Norma to keep an eye out, as there very often is one in with the Wilson’s.  A pair of ibis posed in nice light, and what I’m presuming is the continuing early/oversummering Redhead was at the east end of the lake (in lousy light, so the picture I took wasn't any good).  The little fresh-water pond had a few nice things (including Song Sparrow, which I haven’t heard sing for years), but nothing else we don’t get in the Valley.

Long-billed Curlews dominate a spit at Twin Lakes

Headed in after that, icing and gassing up, then checking in to the hotel.  Touched base with Norma to let her know what I had seen at Twin Lakes, and she was thrilled to hear that Baird’s Sandpipers were there!

Baby Barn Swallows at the Holiday Inn

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