Birding the White Mountains
By Steve Ganley
Maricopa Audubon Society ©1997
The White Mountains are one of Arizona's best birding areas. The cool temperatures and many species of birds make this a great summer birding location. Many people are surprised to find that the birds and plants of the White Mountains have a Rocky Mountain flavor to them. Gray Jays, Blue Grouse, Pine Grosbeaks and Gray Catbird are just a few of the species that can be found in this part of Arizona.
Where to Start: A good central place to start your birding trip are the two towns of Springerville and Eagar. It is not that much further north than Phoenix, but it is only 15 miles from the New Mexico border. There are several motels and food places here. If you are camping, there are many campgrounds to choose from. The campground at Sunrise is a few miles away but great for birding. The 9,500 foot elevation can make for a cold night. The campground at the south fork of the Little Colorado River is closer and also a great birding place. In July and August, you can almost count on an afternoon thunder shower every day.
Getting to the White Mountains: There is no fast way to get to the White Mountains from Phoenix. In the summer months, when it is hot, the best way is to take Highway 87 north to Payson, then Highway 260 east to Show Low. This gets you to a cooler elevation sooner. From Show Low you have the choice to continue on Highway 260 or take the much faster Highway 60. Another way is to take Highway 60 east from Phoenix, past the Boyce-Thompson Arboretum, through Globe, down to the bottom of the Salt River Canyon and on north to Show Low. From Show Low you will have the same two choices, the faster Highway 60 or the more scenic Highway 260.
Springerville Area: A good place to start is at Becker Lake. The lake is north of Springerville about 2.5 miles on the left side of Highway 60. It is a good place to see ducks, geese and blackbirds. Often there are numbers of Yellow-headed Blackbirds there and in migration, many species of swallows can be seen feeding over the lake. If the water level is low there could be shorebirds along the edge of the lake. Solitary Sandpiper and Baird's Sandpiper have been seen in the fall. Other possible fall birds over the water are Black Tern, Common or Forster's Tern, and even Sabine's Gull have been found there. Keep in mind that fall starts in this area in July and continues through early October. The fields in the area are good for raptors, and you should keep an eye out for Kingbirds. Two years in a row an Eastern Kingbird was found here on Memorial Day weekend. Scan the hill north of the lake to see a Prairie Dog colony. After you check out the lake, drive back to Highway 60 and turn right. Then make another right onto Becker Lake Road. Drive about 100 yards and park. The grove of trees here has had some of the best birds in the area. Eastern warblers and large numbers of migrants have been found here. The list of rare birds found here is long with Varied Bunting and Mourning Warbler as quite good. Unfortunately, there was a fire here a few years ago and most of the trees have not recovered. The tree snags are a good location for Lewis' Woodpecker. As you work your way along the road, there are large fields of thistles. In the fall there are many seed eating birds such as Pine Siskins, Lesser Goldfinch and sparrows feeding on the thistle seeds. Look for Chipping, Lark, Savannah, Brewer's, Vesper and the rare Clay-colored Sparrow. In September, this is one of the best places to look for Dickcissel. Hummingbirds are quite conspicuous here in July and August. Rufous Hummingbirds are the most common but the are a few Calliope Hummingbirds as well. Continue on Becker Lake road until it ends at Airport Road. Turn left here and check the large tree for migrants. Wilson's Warblers, MacGillivray's Warblers and Warbling Vireo can be abundant. As you get closer to town, you will cross the Little Colorado River. This marshy area and wet fields have had Bobolink in spring and fall and the only nesting record in the state for Long-billed Curlew. At the end of Airport Road, you will be at Main Street which connects Eagar and Springerville. Turn right and continue to the stop light which is Highway 260. Turn right on 260 to go to South Fork.
South Fork, Little Colorado River: The turn-off to South Fork is not very well marked. From the intersection of Main Street Eagar and Highway 260, it is about 4.5 miles and is on the left side of the road. It starts off on a flat where there are Western Bluebirds, American Kestrel, Western Meadowlarks and Horned Larks. The road then drops down a steep slope to the level of the Little Colorado River. You will soon come to a bridge over the river. There is a good place to park just before the bridge on the left side of the road. Walk upstream along the path on either side of the Little Colorado. Here there is a good mixture of mountain birds as well as a unique habitat of rose, willow and locust that is one of the only nesting places for Gray Catbird in the state. In the past, American Redstart has nested here, and summering Veeries have been found. There is an isolated population of Montezuma Quail here and you can often find three species of Jays: Scrub, Pinyon and Stellar's. The stream often has American Dipper along it and the small trees have had Downy Woodpecker. There have been many eastern warblers and vireos found here over the years but perhaps the most famous bird was the Swainson's Warbler. It was the first record for the western United States. If you continue on this road over the bridge and on to the end you will reach the campground at South Fork. There have been Saw-Whet Owls, Williamson's Sapsucker and even Wild Turkey found here. Bird along the creek and the tall tees along the road.
Nelson Reservoir: From the intersection of Main Street Eagar and Highway 260, go east on 260 about 2 miles, then south on 180 about 5 miles. Just follow the signs for Alpine. Nelson Reservoir gives you a different habitat and some new birds to add to your trip list. There are turn-off places at each end of the lake, but not along the road in between. At the north end is the boat ramp and deeper water for ducks. At the south end is a large parking area and a large marsh. This location is good for Great Blue Heron, Black-crowned Night Heron, Double-crested Cormorant, Sora and Virginia Rail as well as many species of ducks, swallows and it is even a good place to get Pinyon Jays. Just listen for their call from the ridges above the lake.
Sunrise Area: From the intersection of Highway 260 and Main Street Eagar go west on 260. It will be about 15 miles up the mountain to Sunrise. You will pass the turn-off to Greer (another good birding spot) and soon come to Highway 273. Turn left here. The sign says Sunrise and Big Lake. The open grassy fields here are good for Mountain Bluebirds, Swainson's Hawks and Vesper Sparrows. In the evening, you can find Pronghorn antelope and deer out in the fields near the lake. It is also good for Common Nighthawk in the evening. It is quite a sight to seen the males do their courtship flight. They dive down at a fast speed, then they turn up and their wings make a booming sound. It is about four miles into the turn off to the Sunrise Ski area and the campground. There is good birding in the campground and it is not often crowded. There is a store on the left side of the highway that often has hummingbird feeders out behind it. Turn right across from the store. The campground turn is not well marked on your left. There is a long access road before you get to the camp sites. The birds that can be found here include Golden-crowned Kinglet, Mountain Chickadee, Gray Jay, Williamson's Sapsucker and with a little luck, Three-toed Woodpecker, Pine Grosbeak and Blue Grouse.
Sheeps Crossing: Another good place to bird is called Sheeps Crossing. Continue on Highway 273 from Sunrise for about 4.5 miles. The road turns to dirt about half way there. You will drive along the west fork of the Little Colorado and when you get to the bridge over the west fork there will be a road to the right. This road ends at the trailhead for the trail up Mt. Baldy. Birding can be good anywhere along the road. Green-tailed Towhee and Willow Flycatcher can be found between the road and the water. American Dipper is also here. A hike up the Baldy trail can turn up more high mountain species such as Pine Grosbeak, Clark's Nutcracker, and Red Crossbills, and there may be a small number of Swainson's Thrushes in the area in summer.
There are many more places to bird in the area but these few places are more than enough to keep you busy for a weekend. You should explore the White Mountains and find your own favorite spot. Besides the birds, there are lots of mammals to be seen. Look for badger, porcupine, pronghorn and deer. When the summer heat in the valley starts to get to you, nothing is better than a cool weekend birding in the White Mountains.