South Mountain Park

After the rain

July 20, 2017 — Rain in the night delivered morning temperatures in the 80s on Monday. Sipping coffee on the patio I was suddenly gripped by a thought: I’m wasting an opportunity. So, I gathered my gear and headed for South Mountain.

The Pyramid/Basura Trail parking lot had been closed last week, as construction crews paved the Chandler Boulevard extension. On Monday it was open again, so I parked next to the saguaro and strapped on my stuff. I was sad when the roadwork began, knowing it means more development and more of the casual encroachment that close-by housing brings. But traffic noise will be an improvement over the construction racket, and the road should be open soon.

It was 8 a.m. by the time I got going, a little on the late side for July. I saw only one other hiker, a guy about my age with what looked to be a heavy pack on his back. We talked. He was going to be on the trails all day in temperatures forecast to be around 100. The pack held 30 pounds of water, enough for himself and anyone he might encounter  struggling with the conditions. He mentioned snakes; I shared which birds I hoped to see: flycatchers, hummingbirds, doves, maybe a shrike.

rainWe parted ways where the Pyramid Trail branches east toward the mountain. I stayed on the track that leads to the old foundation. My plan was to leave the trail at the wash about a half mile ahead, and follow it back toward the road: basically covering my patch. I heard a Gila Woodpecker, and saw three Verdin. Widely spaced drops of  soft rain were falling, just enough to make me cover the camera and binoculars with zip lock bags. It’s tough to watch birds when your stuff is encased in plastic bags, so I resolved to be content just walking.

Near the place where the Pyramid hooks east, however, I spotted three Northern Mockingbirds swooping and circling each other in the scrub. I pulled the camera from its cocoon to see what I could get. I’m struggling with settings right now, so I wasn’t expecting anything great, but I managed to catch them in midair. Even though the focus probably wasn’t perfect, I had high hopes.

Shrike and mockingbird-blog

I was enjoying the show when I noticed one of the mockingbirds had perched to the side. The swooping games were over for him. Then I realized he wasn’t a mockingbird at all, but a Loggerhead Shrike. The shrike is about an inch smaller than the mockingbird, but the coloration is close enough that you might confuse them, especially if you don’t expect to see shrikes — which I didn’t. In the photo above, look at the tail feathers. The tail feathers of the shrike, on the left, are tipped with white, looking a lot like some hummingbirds. The outer feathers of the mockingbird’s tail are all white.  Shrikes also have a black mask over their eyes, clearly visible in the bird on the left. The mockingbird’s face is gray.

I always look for shrikes in this area. I rarely see them, but often hear them. Cornell’s All About Birds site says the shrike is “a songbird with a raptor’s habits.” It hunts insects, lizards and other birds, impaling prey on thorns or barbed wire. Nicknamed “butcher birds,” they used to be more common across the country but are now rare in the Northeast and Midwest. Log one more reason to treasure South Mountain.


When I have seen a shrike, the bird is usually perched at the end of a branch or atop a tree — almost always too far away for a photo. More often, I hear them. Something about their call reminds me of a phone ringing. Last week I followed one up the wash, losing him in the branches as soon as I caught up with him. Instead I had about five minutes to enjoy the beauty of a Mourning Dove, roosted in a mesquite.


Life took me other places yesterday, so I didn’t go through my pictures until today, and was excited to see that the mockingbird and the shrike were engaged midair. Maybe the shrike had threatened the mockingbird, although the mockingbird was too big to be prey. Perhaps the third bird was a juvenile or a mate that the adult mockingbird was defending — the bird on the right in the image at the top of this post certainly seems to be protecting the other.

Whatever the beef, it was not enough to chase the shrike away.


South Mountain morning

It was 90 degrees when I parked at the Pyramid Trail head in South Mountain Park this morning. Somehow, I must dig deep to find the character to flip my mornings: hike first, coffee later. If I’m going to be happy this summer I need to get going closer to sunrise than lunch.

Grandma and machinesConstruction was in full swing on the Chandler Boulevard extension. A grandma pulled in next to me with a little boy. They toddled off for a better look at the work, and I was slammed back 20 years, when the sight of earth-moving machines would have been a full morning’s entertainment for our kids.

I strapped on my gear: Camelback, binoculars, camera. Red Sox hat – check. Hiking stick – check.

My intention was to follow Pyramid until it reaches the old ruts that lead to the remains of a building, tucked in a canyon north and west of the lot. The stories say that the chimney and foundation are all that’s left of a speakeasy. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s a good yarn, and the ruin was the right distance for a hike at this time of day.

Black-tailed GnatcatcherI crossed the wash, hoping to see an Ash-throated Flycatcher – a common occurrence in that spot — or at least a mockingbird, but I didn’t hear much until I climbed up the other side. Then, looking into the treetops, I saw Black-tailed Gnatcatchers flitting through the branches. They were beyond the range of my lens, especially given the bird’s fast moves on the interior of the tree. But, I could ID him from his song. I stopped another hiker to tell her what I was seeing, and she was appreciative to put a name to “one of those little gray birds.” Something changes when you know a creature’s name.

The land stretches flat for the first half mile or so. Before I reached the Basura Trail cut-off, I spotted a Gila Woodpecker hanging out in the elbow of a saguaro, to the west. I’ve seen a pair of them several times on that cactus: I think they have a nest hole on the west-facing side. At the trail junction, I paused to check out a pair of trees where, in past years, I’ve seen Loggerhead Shrikes. One time we watched as one of them impaled a lizard on a thorn and broke off pieces to feed the kids. No luck today, though.

Ash-throated FlycatcherAfter I joined the old speakeasy road I finally saw an Ash-throated. In March, these flycatchers were courting – almost every branch you looked at had a singing bird perched at the tip. The babies may have fledged, because the adults have returned to more normal behavior.

Further ahead, the trail dips down into the wash again. This spot is where I spent 30 happy minutes watching an American Kestrel this winter – it’s popular with the flycatchers, too. I found some dappled shade by a tree and settled in to listen and watch: that’s how you see birds. But this is a popular trail. I’ve encountered bikes as well as hikers here, and so it was this morning. I could hear three women approaching, and one of them was telling a story about a multi-car wreck. It was a good story. After they passed I knew I had  five minutes or so to wait for the birds to start moving again.

Black-throated Sparrow 3-11 v2At the last minute, I decided to ditch the plan to visit the foundation and follow the wash instead. It offers the cover of trees and brush – welcome relief from the sun. There’s an informal trail that winds through the wash, then climbs up the slope to the north of the Basura, finally intersecting that trail a couple miles west. It’s not an official park trail, but some hikers call it the Eliminator. When I hiked it in March I saw two new birds for the first time: a Sage Thrasher (above) and a Black-throated Sparrow (left).

It was after 10 and the heat was cranking up. Time to turn around. Back on the flat I started to pick up mockingbird songs, flights of House Finches and the raucous calls of Gilded Flickers. They are more comfortable living among us –no need to look for rooftops to know that I was getting close to the parking lot.

93 degrees. Lunchtime.