June 17, 2010
Northern Hawk Owl female mantling nest cavity with young
Northern Hawk Owl female mantling nest cavity with young
Aside from "hitting the lottery"--either finding a rarity or a bird outside its normal range or season--the two most fun things birders do is travel to see birds they can't see at home and get good, close looks at species with highly specialized adaptations which allow them to fill narrow environmental niches.  Birding the North Rim of the Grand Canyon over this past Fourth of July weekend, we didn't hit the lottery, but we cashed in on both the fun things.

For many years the White Mountains were touted as the most underbirded area of Arizona.  Serious birders finally got the message and started making a yearly trek to Sunrise and parts east, typically during late May.  Now the "most underbirded" mantle has been transferred to the North Rim.  That should change too, and here's why.

With the exception of Pine Grosbeak and with the additional possibility of California Condor, the North Rim has all the Arizona mountain specialties sought in the White Mountains.  It's a cool getaway from the Valley's summer heat, there is a little less likelihood of afternoon showers, the spectacular Grand Canyon overlooks are right down the road, and here's the best part--White Mountain birding is scattered over a vast area that takes several days to cover well while birding on the North Rim is concentrated along the forty-one mile corridor of Highway 67 across the length of the Kaibab Plateau, from Jacob Lake to the Rim.  Even with several side trips out along the graveled forest service feeder roads it can be done in a weekend.

Begin your first day at the large water feature in the cabin area of the Jacob Lake Inn.  Be there at sunup and within a couple hours you should see two dozen species without leaving the covered viewing deck.  Highlights over the Fourth were Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, Williamson's Sapsuckers, Clark's Nutcrackers, Western Bluebirds, Grace's Warblers, Western Tanagers, Cassin's Finches, and several flocks of Red Crossbills featuring every color and age group from bright red males to streaky brown immatures so young their bills were not yet crossed.  We missed Evening Grosbeak, but they are reported coming to the water in fall.

Driving down 67, watch for flyover Northern Goshawks and Peregrine Falcons.  Swainson's Hawks can be seen sitting in the huge, scenic meadows watching for rodents.  The paved road out to Points Imperial and Royal are good for Dusky Grouse, especially near the ends as the grouse like to fly off the Rim to escape trouble.  Be sure to stop and walk through DeMotte Campground.  Walking any of the roads through the Warm Fire burn area may produce both Hairy and American Three-toed Woodpeckers.

Did I mention Red Crossbill?  The Crossbill upper mandible is decurved, the lower mandible upcurved, and the tips are crossed.  This remarkable bill is exquisitely evolved to pry open pine cones to extract the seeds, and there is a groove on the lower mandible which helps in the removal of the seed coating.  DNA studies now indicate there may be eight(!) different types (species?) of this nomadic finch which feed on eight different and specific kinds of pines, do not recognize one another's songs, and do not interbreed.

If you're a serious birder you're now on notice that the North Rim has some serious birds you can't see in the Valley, and Red Crossbills up close and in profusion are worth the price of the gasoline.  Highway 67 is closed in winter.  Go now.