Monday, July 15, 2013

Thrashin' in West Phoenix

There is an infamous intersection out west of Phoenix. No, it's not some old ghost town or copper mine or the site of a wild western shoot out. Take Baseline Road from the I-10 interstate, and follow it down to the old Highway 85. When you've run into the Salome Highway intersection, a rather bleak 3-way stop occupied by only a single, shot-gunned stop sign, you'll be about 40 miles west of the city. 
Near this desolate intersection, out in the scrubby desert, skulking along the hot cracked dirt, is mankind's best hope of seeing Bendire's, Crissal, and Le Conte's Thrashers all in the same outing, or so the legend has it...
Truth be told this intersection is probably no better than any other little strip of desert along the Salome Highway, but this patch is the easiest to pick out on a map, and it does tend to deliver.

The Thrashers are very sensitive outside of the city and do not tolerate any sort of approach. After all, this is supposed to be their oasis, their stronghold from the flesh-eating Curve-Billed Thrashers that are all over Phoenix, but curiously absent out in the desert proper.

The Curve-Billed Thrasher is not a bird you want to encounter in an ally late at night
I've returned to the Thrasher spot many times in hopes of improving my photo collection and taking visitors to see these skulking desert dwellers. March is the best time to visit, with some of the species then singing for mates and territory, and the creosote and sage scrub teeming with migrating Sage Thrashers and with Sage Sparrows.

From behind, the Sage Thrasher can be easily confused with a Mockingbird, but once visible, the speckled breast is unmistakable, even at a distance. Plus, Phoenix-area Mockingbirds are too smart and spoiled to live out here in the boonies. 

Throughout the spring, the dominant sound one hears out at the Thrasher spot, in addition to the softer chittering of Brewer's Sparrows, is the boisterous Bendire's Thrasher. In some ways, this is aesthetically the least remarkable of the west Phoenix thrashers, so it compensates with pretty, confident, and continual song. 

Note the stubbier and less curved mandibles on the Bendire's Thrasher, probably the best way to tell it apart from the Curve-Billed.

During one of my visits last March, there was a couple from Wisconsin also searching for the Le Conte's Thrasher, and an hour later I ran into two more people searching for the very same chalky-white nemesis.
It's funny how the Le Conte's seems to be the last Thrasher on so many peoples' lists. In fact, despite Arizona being home to many North American birds that won't be found in any other state, I receive far more emails and inquiries about the Le Conte's Thrasher than any other single bird. Folks from the Midwest, northwest, South Africa, England, and Colorado have all gotten in touch about this bird, which unfortunately means their experience of Arizona's nature-scapes is, perhaps, less pretty than it could be.

I've been fortunate to find a small area at the 'Thrasher Spot' were the Le Conte's are reliable, with at least one breeding pair recorded there and multiple individuals a frequent sight.This first shot of the elusive Le Conte's characterizes the bird's attitude pretty well. Perched atop his little deadwood atoll, this male hid his face behind his foot as we raised our binoculars.

It made me feel like I was a part of avian paparazzi.
As far as bird families go, the Thrashers look relatively similar (Ha! pun point!). That being said, there's no mistaking the Le Conte's. It's a long, slender, eleven inch bird, and its chalky, grey/white wash is very unique, as is the dark amber eye.

With four people doing the new bird dance, the trip was well worth it. At times, it seems the Le Conte's can be a ghost in the desert. We were lucky to find the phantom and hear its haunting call before it vanished into the scrubby sands.  

Great Birding!


  1. Beautiful photos Eileen! I especially love the third one. thank you for stopping by and have a great week.

    1. On behalf of Eileen, I accept this compliment. Thanks Clara, a great week to you as well.

  2. I love looking at your bird photos! Have a great week!

  3. I may be sending you an email next spring:) LOL!!! I have yet to find LeConte's and the Sage Thrashers. I have found the Crissal to be my trickiest adversary and yet we found this elusive bird. Bendire's liked to pose quick and take off. Curve-bills just sit with a glare in the eye thinking, "Go ahead make my day." I can only imagine what the other two thrashers are like. They do look beautiful, but to be honest, that thrasher spot as does the mountain plover spot are not my favorites to visit. But now I will be forced to make the trek this winter and spring again:) Wonderful post! And thanks for sharing your experiences.

  4. Oh how I would love to visit this haven for thrashers! To date, I have only seen Brown Thrashers, so observing any of the above mentioned would be a thrill. Lucky you! Fantastic post, wonderful photographs!

  5. I love thrashers! Though they're rather plain birds, they are fun to observe, and they have lovely songs. Nice photos!