09 November 2015

Birding Mt. Ord

Last week, my friend Jason and I went birding on Mt. Ord.  Mt. Ord is one of those places that is well known to locals, but probably rarely heard of by most birders outside of the greater Phoenix area.  It is a locally popular birding spot because it is the most accessible high-elevation site in Maricopa County, and so it is an easy place to find several bird species that can be tough to find anywhere else in the county. (Brown's Peak, part of the Four Peaks, is about 500 feet higher in elevation, but it takes hours of driving down a very rough road to reach the trailhead, with more hiking and climbing after that to reach the summit.  Mt. Ord is an easy drive in a passenger car all the way to within 0.75 miles of the summit.)

View of Mt. Ord from the highway on the way up as the sun starts to brighten the sky.
Jason and I started from his apartment well before sunrise so that we could be on the mountain when the birds were most active at first light.  It was about an hour drive to the top of the mountain.  The sun had risen before we started birding at 7:00, but it was still cold and dark because we were on the west side of the peak.  We started on Forest Road 1688, which is a convenient spot for county listers not just because it traverses chaparral and Ponderosa Pine habitats, but also because its entire length is in Maricopa County, so you don't have to worry about whether the rare bird you found was on the right side of the county line.

Almost as soon as we got out of the car,we came into a mixed flock of birds, including Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Bushtits, White-breasted Nuthatches, and a Bewick's Wren.  One of the first few birds I saw was an Olive Warbler!  This is an uncommon species in Maricopa County because there is not much of its high elevation conifer habitat within the county borders, but it is even more rare this late in the year, after most of them have migrated south to Mexico.

My lifer Olive Warbler was one of the first birds of the morning.
We continued along FR1688 and saw a lot of other specialty species of this mountain habitat.  It was a treat to compare Juniper Titmouse and Bridled Titmouse side-by-side, accompanied by a flock of Golden-crowned Kinglets.  An immature Golden Eagle soared by, showing the white patches in the wing as it glided overhead.  Brown Creepers called with their high-pitched notes from the conifers.  It was also fun to sort out the Dark-eyed Junco subspecies: we saw at least three types on this road (Oregon, Pink-sided, and Gray-headed).

This Juniper Titmouse was a bit out of place in a Ponderosa Pine, but we saw it in an Alligator Juniper, too.  This flock had a pair of titmice each of Juniper and Bridled flavors.

Although the sun was shining, it felt cold on the top of the mountain, especially with the wind blowing.  We were surprised to see not just one, but two tarantulas on the prowl.
FR1688 was fun and productive, but I also wanted to see the summit and bird the road a bit.  After a couple of hours, we headed up to the parking lot at the end of the road.  From there it was a 3/4 mile walk to the summit, with the first 1/4 mile mostly in Gila County and the last 1/2 mile in Maricopa County.  The birding was slow, but we did see our fourth Dark-eyed Junco subspecies of the day, a Red-backed Junco (a subspecies of Dark-eyed Junco that looks very similar to Gray-headed Junco and is rare in Maricopa County).  We also added Pine Siskin to the list for the day.  In total, I added 14 new species to my Maricopa County list, the biggest bump in my county list since my first month here.

This Red-backed subspecies Dark-eyed Junco is rare in Maricopa County.  It can be told from its look-alike relative, the Gray-headed Junco, by the whitish throat (contrasting more with the hood than the grayish throat of the Gray-headed Junco) and especially the dark upper mandible (pale pink on Gray-headed Junco).

The view from the top of Mt. Ord.  The Phoenix area is hard to see at this scale but is visible in the distance in the left part of this photo.


Andrew Durso said...

Dude, Olive Warblers are awesome! I had my lifer earlier this year as well in the Chiricahuas.

Ryan O'Donnell said...

Yeah, pretty awesome! I'm looking forward to returning in the spring to hear them sing.

Caleb Strand said...

Hey Mr. Ryan!
Congrats on the awesome day at Ord! I believe that Red-back Junco was a first record for Maricopa County, if I heard Mr. Troy Corman right. Keep up the awesome birding!
Bird Hard!!!

Ryan O'Donnell said...

Hey Caleb, thanks for stopping by! There are a few other eBird records of Red-backed Junco from Maricopa, but not many. One from Phoenix in 2005, one from the Granite Reef Rec Area in 2007, and two from Mt. Ord in 2011, and one by Troy himself from the Slate Creek Divide in 2014. Presumably they're all valid, but it's hard to know because Troy's is the only other one with any kind of supporting details attached.