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Full Version: Coconino Plateau Sprague's Pipit, Red Phalarope, longspurs and more
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This weekend Lauren Harter, Felipe Guerrero, Mara Trushell and I birded around a small fraction of the Coconino Plateau. Our plan for the weekend was very different but Felipe had a hunch we should bird this area this weekend and we were glad we made the change in plans! 

Saturday 11 Nov we started at Valle by birding the Grand Canyon Inn courtyard which though we did not have anything amazing, looks like a fantastic vagrant trap and should be birded more often. We had large numbers of birds including good numbers of bluebirds. Of interest was a small flock of Gambel's Quail, 9 Ring-billed Gulls flying over, slightly out of habitat were 30 Pinyon Jays, 2 Sage Thrashers, "Myrtle" Warbler, a pair of Brown-headed Cowbirds, and perhaps most curious was 3 American Goldfinches investigating and adding/moving material from a nest. Checking it today 12 Nov was a lot slower with overcast and slightly windy conditions versus the sun of the day before. 

We next checked a few tanks without much luck before hitting the 3 Little Rodgers Tanks (35.6811131,-112.481484) in with the large numbers of Horned Larks coming in to the tank we had 1 LAPLAND (which we only had in flight), 24 CHESTNUT-COLLARED, and a McCOWN's LONGSPUR, plus a female Ring-necked Duck and 2 Prairie Falcons and a Sharp-shinned Hawk making life difficult for the larks, longspurs, and us. Of interest the majority of the longspurs we saw were adults. We had more CHESTNUT-COLLARED and 1 McCOWN's LONGSPURS at this tank (35.669953, -112.566206). 

In the evening scanning the valley from roughly here (35.691672, -112.495618) we had our second Ferruginous Hawk of the day and Felipe had a likely Short-eared Owl in the dimming light. 

Today 12 Nov after slow birding we hit "Farm Dam Draw" Tank (35.7178447,-112.6108962) where the highlight was a tame RED PHALAROPE, also present were 5 Ruddy Ducks, a Pied-billed Grebe, 2 Greater Yellowlegs, 3 Ring-billed Gulls and a Northern Harrier that caught a lark mid-air!

We decided to walk the grasslands near Little Rodgers Tanks in the hopes of flushing a Short-eared Owl and perhaps finding Sprague's Pipits as the habitat looked great for the species. We were successful on both counts! We started roughly here 35.7178447,-112.6108962 (EDIT: corrected coordinates) and walked south and east headed toward Little Rodgers Tanks, covering +3km in one direction. Near the start of our walk in a denser patch of Apache Plume, we flushed a SHORT-EARED OWL. In a shallow draw that had dried herbs (some sort of Asteraceae) rather than grass and mixed with bare ground, we flushed a flock of 17 McCOWN's LONGSPURS was flushed. In the taller grass that dominated the area, we flushed a minimum of 37 CHESTNUT-COLLARED LONGSPURS, which were a mix of singles/2-3 and small groups up to 15 birds. We also flushed 3-4 SPRAGUE's PIPITS a 1st county record! One we possible flushed twice, once on the way out and then again on the way back. Only 1 bird gave decent looks. 

Couple notes on finding birds, understanding habitat/behavior of these species is very helpful and knowing the calls is necessary as good views even at tanks are rare. Checking at tanks birds are rather skittish as raptors prey upon them regularly, we saw both Northern Harrier and a Prairie Falcon capture Horned Larks, while we a Merlin, Prairie Falcon, and Sharp-shinned Hawk making passes at the Horned Larks. Though most of the tanks we checked had Horned Larks coming into them, only those tanks near the best grassland areas produced longspurs. Sprague's Pipits do not come into tanks, so you need to walk to find them. In walking grasslands, Short-eared Owls roost in areas of denser vegetation within grasslands. Chestnut-collared Longspurs and Sprague's Pipits prefer areas of moderate grass height, lacking a lot of shrubs, while McCown's Longspurs prefer areas of higher bare ground and less grass. In waking a grassland more people are better, a single individual trying to cover all that ground is unlikely to produce that much.

In closing the main roads while dirt is passable by a passenger car, wanting to explore further or off the main roads will require moderate to higher clearance vehicle. We also covered very little of the tanks and potential habitat out there so exploring will likely produce something of interest. Good birding.

David Vander Pluym
Lake Havasu City
Thanks, David! Another word on ID regarding SPPI: Do familiarize yourself with their flight call as they'll often flush and vocalize while flying high and generally away from the observer (sometimes wide circling) and this combined with hopefully decent flight looks will clinch the ID. However, this species will also flush silently and land within a hundred feet or so and walk/run across the ground so if you flush a medium-largish, sparrow-looking bird - and there are very, very few sparrows out there - approach cautiously with your eyes on the area the bird landed and look for a tan-yellowish, streaked pipit snaking through and occasionally over clumps of grass. You can get great looks in the latter scenario. Good luck out there!

Also, minor correction to the walking instructions for the Tin House Valley (SEOW, SPPI, MCLO, etc.), park at the old gravel pit and then walk southeast toward Little Rodgers Tanks: 35.692920, -112.511139
Chuck LaRue and I drove out to the grasslands around 9:00 a.m. this morning. We didn't have to work hard for the Spragues Pipit, getting good looks at one bird in about 10 minutes, which was joined 2 others and flew overhead calling.

Chuck had to tend to his dog so I beat the grasslands looking for Short-eared Owls.  A McCowns Longspur flew in calling and chipping, but I didn't get a great look at it.  I had a great look later when I was given about a 10 second look at another one.

A great few days of birding.
A pre-dawn trip to the Coconino Plateau grasslands west of Valle, AZ this morning turned up a large number of continuing outstanding birds: 2 Sprague's Pipits, 1 Short-eared Owl, 1 Lapland Longspur, 6-8 McCown's Longspurs, numerous Chestut-collared Longspurs. Good looks at a Grasshopper Sparrow and a Western Screech-Owl on the drive in were icing on the cake.




Flagstaff, AZ
Jason and I also went to the location where the Red Phalarope was seen and did not find it.  We were at the correct tank which is Long Point Tank (the coordinates above ARE correct) but buzzing around on line this morning it appears that the actual Farm Dam Tank as so named on the USGS quads is seven miles northwest of Long Point Tank/Dam.

see here:

(note that you can change settings on this site. Handy site, by the way, I use it almost daily)

So in case anyone is planning on going out there this distinction could be important.  Also we were informed at Tin House that Farm Dam Tank is on the Big Boquillas Ranch....which is closed to entry without permission. I think there may information concerning such matters on the ranch's website.
Chuck, you should take a selfie of yourself next to a Topo Map showing the correct name of the tank.


(15 Nov 2017, 8:32 AM)jawilder Wrote: [ -> ]Chuck, you should take a selfie of yourself next to a Topo Map showing the correct name of the tank.



I have never birded this area before. I am very interested in doing so.

Could anyone give directions as to the best way (route) to access this area?


The coordinates that Felipe provided are a good place to start. Here is a google link to the spot:

Little Rodgers Tanks (where longspurs are coming in to drink) are about 2 miles ESE of this spot and are well-marked on Google Earth.

This area is a 25 mile drive from Highway 64 on Willaha Rd. The road is dirt, but well-graded and easy driving for any vehicle.

(15 Nov 2017, 8:32 AM)jawilder Wrote: [ -> ]Chuck, you should take a selfie of yourself next to a Topo Map showing the correct name of the tank.



It would be really cool if the Red Phalarope took a selfie with you and me in the background.... :>)
(15 Nov 2017, 8:58 AM)jawilder Wrote: [ -> ]The coordinates that Felipe provided are a good place to start. Here is a google link to the spot:

Little Rodgers Tanks (where longspurs are coming in to drink) are about 2 miles ESE of this spot and are well-marked on Google Earth.

This area is a 25 mile drive from Highway 64 on Willaha Rd. The road is dirt, but well-graded and easy driving for any vehicle.


Thanks Jason, that really helps!

On a slightly different note, it was striking that the grasslands out at Tin House Flat offer a very distinctly different habitat than any of the surrounding area in that it is relatively pure grass, with very little shrub component. An area with very similar features is the grassland west of Hank's Trading Post on Highway 89. While this area is birded from the road with some regularity (with good results! Burrowing Owl, Mountain Plover, etc), it might be worth some exploration on foot in areas where the vegetation structure seems favorable for Sprague's Pipits (there are very large patches out there where this is the case). A group of us tried this some years ago (with no particular goal, and not targeting Pipits) on a relatively brief foray with minimal effort that flushed a couple Chestnut-collared Longspurs and sparrows - very similar to the situation at Tin House. It might take a LOT of walking to flush a pipit, if present, and more searchers would likely make this a more fruitful endeavor. It's worth noting that this area has had Short-eared owl and McCown's Longspur in the past as well.

I'm also struck by how different the Tin House Flat area is compared to some of the other preferred sites for longspurs in the region, such as the tanks along Buffalo Ranch Road.  Despite a healthy grass component in the habitat along Buffalo Ranch Rd, there are virtually no pure grass areas out that way (lots of shrub). There's never been a report of McCown's Longspur along Buffalo Ranch (despite lots of birding effort over the years), but Chestnut-collards are common and Lapland quite regular. I wonder if it is the grass/shrub balance that affects the composition of longspurs.

One more thought for anyone with particular interest in the Short-eared Owl: finding this bird by hoping to flush it from the ground is a daunting proposition, not to mention not very nice to the bird. This species is famously crepuscular in the winter and a late-afternoon to dusk vigil at Felipe's coordinates will give the highest odds of seeing this bird.

yes, what Jason said.
A group of 5 of us trudged the grasslands for about 5 hours today.

Cold and windy.

Pretty much says it all.
I agree with Jason. Park your car there at 5:00 p.m. and scan. It's a long drive, but I'll bet you get a SEOW.
I ventured out to the Tin House Valley with Chuck LaRue and Terry Myers yesterday, 26 November.  We walked the grassland generally south of the gravel pit mentioned above by Felipe with a few Chestnut-collared Longspurs being seen.  A Ferruginous Hawk was perched atop one of the gravel piles.  After seeing lots of Horned Larks, and a likely Lapland Longspur, at the nearby Little Rodgers Tanks we drove further west to Long Point Tank at Farm Dam Draw (per google maps).  Here we found an American Wigeon and Lesser Scaup and a group of Mountain Bluebirds.  Heading back we stopped again just west of the gravel pit and walked a section of the darker-colored shorter vegetation that David refers to above.  At the east end of a patch right next to the road we flushed three McCown's Longspurs that flew several hundred yards to the southeast.  We headed that way in hopes of better looks and after checking two more areas of the same vegetation, Terry flushed a Sprague's Pipit (and possibly a second individual) from the taller grassland.  After some effort a good look was obtained of a stationary Sprague's Pipit in the grass.

As stated above, this is a quite interesting habitat that requires more coverage.  While viewing this area on Google Maps, Chuck noticed a meandering historic stream bed through the valley.  It was along this that we found the aforementioned shorter vegetation where most of the McCown's Longspurs have been initially seen.  With all of our ramblings in the valley we flushed/heard/saw 20-30 Chestnut-collared Longspurs and many Horned Larks.
We also had a single Grasshopper Sparrow.
Today (1 Dec 2017), Rosa Palarino and I made an early morning trip out to Tin House Flat. Arriving at first light, we scanned the valley from several locations, but were not able to turn up a Short-eared Owl. The golden morning light on the grasslands was a nice consolation though.

Walking the flat, bird activity was minimal for the first (chilly) couple hours, but we did play a prolonged game of hide-and-seek with a McCown's Longspur that eventually gave us good close-up views. Eventually bird activity picked up, with more longspurs (McCown's and Chestnut-collared) and of course many larks. We were unable to find a Sprague's Pipit (or any sparrows of any type!) today.

At Little Rodgers Tanks, a Prairie Falcon perched on the dam kept the large lark flocks on edge, and nothing stayed put for more than a few seconds.

Brian Gatlin
Brooks Hart, Tom Hedwall and I have it a good shot yesterday, and as previously mentioned, it was slow going for several hours.

However, both Brooks and I had strong candidates for Spragues, but we couldn't get good looks at the birds.  They were pretty far apart.

We flopped on MCCowns Longspur, but had several CCLO.  Also no SEOW.

We enjoyed amazingly nice looks at a Grasshopper Sparrow, and flushed another two.

The tenacious grass seeds seem to have departed.

Still, grassland birding is great fun.