Thursday, 23 April 2015

ARIZONA 2015: Vermilion Cliffs and Grand Canyon (22-23 April)

22 April 2015.  We left Kanab and drove south into Arizona heading for the Californian Condor release site at Vermilion Cliffs.  Our route took us through the Kiabab National Forest where we made a couple of brief stops seeing a brief Pygmy Nuthatch, Vesper Sparrow and a male Common Crossbill.  The viewing area was somewhat further from Vermilion Cliffs than I had anticipated but even through binoculars it was obvious when we arrived mid morning that some big birds were circling around.  Through my small spotting scope I could confirm that they were condors, about eight of them, then they started drifting overhead gaining height.  We had been fortunate not to have arrived fifteen minutes later as by then they had all departed.  We continued on to Navajo Bridge where we had our first sight of the Colorado River.  No more condors though it was a regular site for them, we were doubtless too late.  We continued on to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, approaching through the East entrance from Cameron.  Our first stop was Desert View and it was breathtaking and surpassed very high expectations.  We continued towards the Village stopping at the eastern viewpoints on the way as we wouldn't be passing them again.  We checked into Maswik Lodge where we had a basic motel type room in one of their two storey wooden blocks set back 5-10 minutes walk from the canyon rim in rather nice open coniferous woodland.  After settling in and having a quick look around we caught a shuttle bus to the Visitor Centre at Mather Point, frustratingly seeing my first Western Bluebird from the window on the way.  From there we walked a km west along the rim to Yavapai Point where we waited for sunset.  It was colder than we had prepared for but was not as crowded as we had expected it to be.  As it was getting dark we quickly walked the 3 km back along the well marked Rim Trail to the Village.  We soon warmed up walking and once back in the Village passed several posh lodges along the edge of the rim.  All had completely full restaurants although we were a little surprised that with them all at full capacity there had not been more people out for sunset.  The cafeteria at Maswik Lodge was completely full too but by the time we had queued for food it was starting to thin out.  A brilliant day, we decided to return to Yavapai Point for dawn, but would save a bit of time by driving there.  I set the alarm for 04:30 and we had an early night.

panoramic view north from the Le Fevre Overlook at the edge of the Kiabab National Forest
first views of Vermilion Cliffs were not so vermilion, more a sort of brown? 
just as well they are a really big bird as the cliffs were not close
we timed it about right as it had warmed up by the time we arrived and 8 birds were flying around the cliffs before quickly heading off. The wing-tags were very obvious on this one, not that I could read them.
another Californian Condor, it presumably did have wing-tags (I believe they all do) but they were not obvious

Horned Lark in the open grassland between the condor viewpoint and the main road
Loggerhead Shrike on a track-side bus
still not convinced the cliffs are vermilion but they no longer looked brown!

heading towards Navajo Bridge
the Colorado River at Navajo Bridge, just before it enters the Grand Canyon

Navajo Bridge.  This is another condor site, I've seen photos of them on the superstructure.  I guess any there had left when it warmed up.
it is actually two bridges, the left one currently used by tourist pedestrians and the right one by traffic
a final view of Vermilion Cliffs
a first view if the Grand Canyon, at Desert View.  Very impressive.

Raven on a car park bin
view from Navajo Point

Lipan Point

Yavapai Point
the flatness of the land surrounding the canyon was striking 
the South Rim, where we were, is wooded right to the edge.  It provided some decent birding, when I could drag myself away from the amazing vistas 
American Robin was one of the commoner residents
low sunlight from Yavapai Point

sunset from Yavapai Point

23 April.  I'd forgotten to change the alarm clock which was on Utah time and we woke an hour earlier than need be to get to the rim for dawn.  We put on as many clothes as we could and drove to the Visitor Centre in the dark.  We parked in the first car park we came to and were surprised how far it was to the rim.  We joined a few others making their way out to Yavapai Point and we again surprised, given how any people were staying the the Grand Canyon, how few seemed out for sunrise.  Maybe most stayed close to their lodges?  A good section of the canyon could be seen from Yavapai Point and we found a lookout with an easterly aspect and waited.  There were some thin clouds and it was very cold so we were very glad of our extra layers.  The clouds added to the atmosphere and the sun came up penetrating the canyon.  We walked back to our car park seeing a few birds on the way.  It took a bit of finding as I had not being paying enough attention when we arrived in the dark and hadn't appreciated there were four car parks not one and ours was a km further from the rim than the nearest.  We returned to our room for a late breakfast and I spent an hour or so birding in the woodland behind the lodge seeing Grace's Warbler, Pygmy Nuthatch and Mountain Chickadee.  We checked out, leaving our luggage in the car, and walked down to catch a shuttle bus to the western viewpoints.  Four Californian Condors circled up out of the canyon although despite my running to the rim they had disappeared by the time I got there.  We caught the next shuttle bus, they ran every 15 minutes, intending to get off at the end (Hermit's Rest) and walk some of the sections back but seeing the two black dots on the cliff edge while stopped at Maricopa Point had us piling off. Two condors waiting for thermals.  We walked the 2 km around to Mohave Point seeing perhaps the best views we had of the canyon and certainly the best of the Colorado River. A noisy flock of 30 Pinyon Jays flew along this section like Chough while a Black-throated Grey Warbler was another new bird. We hardly had to wait for another bus to take us on to Pima Point, another great lookout, and from there we walked the 2 km to Hermit's Rest.  The views from here were a bit of a disappointment as it was down a side canyon.  We caught a shuttle bus back to the Village, had a picnic lunch on a tale by the lodge and Nessa, Josh and I then spent an hour walking a short way down the Bright Angel Trail.  It was rather busy, including a couple of noisy school parties, which rather put Megan off, but being below the rim gave one a slightly different perception of the canyon. Back at the rim we had a final view of the canyon and at 14:30 left the Grand Canyon and drove south to Flagstaff where we would spend the next three nights.  Our visit to the Grand Canyon had exceeded all expectations but left me with rather too many images to sort out!

sunrise from Yavapai Point

it was very cold

early sun catching the canyon

sure-footed Elk
not too concerned by tourists
Western Bluebird, something I was hoping to see and was not disappointed by
they were quite common
a very small section of the Colorado River is just about visible in the centre of this image
Dark-eyed Junco
just showing the red-back of this race
a final view from Yavapai Point before heading back for breakfast
another Western Blueird
Desert Cottontail
Grace's Warbler
the yellow throat certainly stood out
Pygmy Nuthatch
near the start of the Bright Angel trail.  Four condors had circled up out of the canyon as we were walking down to the rim but despite my running the last 400m they had disappeared around the corner by the time I made it.

we caught the Shuttle Bus west intending to get off at the end (Hermit's Rest) and walk some of the sections back but seeing the two black dots on the cliff edge while stopped at Maricopa Point had us piling off.

Californian Condor on the cliff near Powell Point

Hopi Point

even better views from a bit further on, and a readable wing-tag.  Who needs colour-ringed gulls!
they had a sad expression which made them quite endearing

the suns rays were obviously very welcome

Mohave Point

panorama from Mohave Point
a small section of the Colorado River from Pima Point

the flat horizon from Pima Point
Rock Squirrel
this one looked very well fed despite warnings not to do so as their fleas could carry the plague
another section of the Colorado River from Pima Point
Black-throated Grey Warbler
Hermit's Rest, the end of the line for the shuttle bus
Say's Phoebe
the start of the Bright Angel Trail

Bright Angel Trail
being below the rim gave one a different perspective but the further down one went the further to climb back up and we didn't have time to go far

final views of the Grand Canyon.  We were expecting it to be amazing and it certainly was.  We were fortunate with the weather and it wasn't as busy as we had feared (still early in the season). I also saw some interesting birds.
Western Scrub Jay

the rear of our block at Maswik Lodge
The San Francisco Peaks from the road to Flagstaff

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