Thursday, 28 May 2009

Southeast Arizona

My airline has recently reviewed it’s travel concession policy and has allowed me to add my long-time friend and birdy-buddy, Martin, as a travel companion. In anticipation of the new rules, I requested a trip to Phoenix and Martin arranged some space in his diary. A 5-day trip gives 2 full days of birding plus a little extra something on the fourth morning.
We planned a route that would take us into the famed southeast corner of Arizona. This area is noted for being a hotspot for birds reaching their northernmost limits, just squeezing into the USA past the omnipresent border patrols. Birds more commonly associated with Mexico and Central America can be found here among other specialists of the desert and mountain habitats.

Day 1. 20th May.

Low cloud all day kept the light low and photos to a minimum.
Our first stop was to be the noted Pecan Grove close to the Pinal Air Park. First light found us just short at the side of the road with our first target bird, a Greater Roadrunner. No trip to the desert would be complete without a roadrunner. My navigation narrowly missed the pecan grove at the first attempt, but once we saw it across the fields, it was an easy mistake to correct.
It was not immediately obvious whether or not we could enter the grove. Etiquette was high on the priority list of the author of our guide book, so we elected to stay in the car and skirt two sides. Already we had a handful of beautiful birds. Gambell’s Quail(one of the local specialities), Lesser Nighthawk, Blue Grosbeak, Western Tanager and Phainopepla to name but a few. To this we added, Yellow-rumped Warbler, White-crowned Sparrow and Black-headed Grosbeak. Less spectacular were 2 Mallard that flew over. The fields on the approach had given up some Horned Lark amongst the many Red-shouldered Blackbirds. On the return to the road, the fields gave us a snake. My best guess at the moment is a kingsnake
I am worried that there are so many reptiles and insects appearing in this increasingly misnamed bird blog, but just look at him. I don’t know what it is yet, I am hoping for a herp to find this blog and start cataloguing for me. Watch out for the rattlesnake later!
The plan was to be at the Sonoran Desert Museum by opening time at 07.30, but this was never going to happen. Easily distracted, we stopped a few times en-route for Pyrruloxia, Gila Woodpecker, Ashy-throated Flycatcher, Verdin, Cactus Wren and Curve-billed Thrasher. We eventually arrived at the museum closer to 09.00, having already seen most of the birds that we were hoping to see there. I wanted to see the hummingbird aviary. The Anna’s Hummingbird below sat provocatively on an open perch and allowed us to approach very closely. I would have loved to get a shot of one in flight, or at a flower, but it was not to be. Two females were tending nests, one with an egg, the other with two chicks, one of which had just fledged.There were plenty of wild birds in the grounds including the Hooded Oriole, Bronzed Cowbird and a Wilson’s Warbler. There were more grosbeaks, wrens, thrashers and woodpeckers too.
Our plans changed from here. We had anticipated the desert to be fiercely hot by 10.00 and were intending to head up into the mountains. The temperature was 107F when we landed the previous evening, but had plummeted overnight. To our delight, the mercury was barely over 80F. So we continued our meanderings in the lower lying habitats, taking in the area at the crossing of Shannon and Broadway (Say’s Phoebe and Black-tailed Gnatcatcher of note) and on to the Sweetwater Wetlands. Roger’s Ponds across from Sweetwater was playing host to the resident Harris Hawk family. A youngster was calling pitifully while two other family members fussed around it. A Vermillion Flycatcher hawked from a low branch beneath them.
Sweetwater Wetlands is a series of reed-lined ponds surrounded by cat-tails. The first pond had a few ducks, but we suspected that they may have been clipped or rescued or otherwise not present at their own volition. A board outside which listed all the birds alphabetically claimed the Cinnamon Teal and Shoveller to be resident, but with the Harris Hawks and Gambell’s quails separating the ducks on the list we questioned the credibility of the information.
On the larger bodies of water beyond the fence were American Avocets, Black-necked Stilts, Killdeer and Great Blue Herons. Martin wandered off and left me to my own devices and guess what? I ended up taking pictures of dragonflies again. I had previously missed the rodents, but I imagine the Harris Hawks know all about them. Chubby chaps with short tails, I was informed that they were packrats, but I have not yet been able to verify this. Also worthy of mention were Common Yellowthroat, Abert’s Towhee, Northern Roughwinged Swallow and a rattlesnake. Again I throw myself at the whim of a passing herp to tell me which of the many kinds it might be.
We made a quick detour to Madera Canyon to check on our accommodation for the next night only to find Santa Rita Lodge ominously quiet. Then, puzzled, on to Nogales to spend the night at the Holiday Inn Express, which, in case you are interested, proved to be clean, comfortable, quiet and affordable.
Day 2. 21st May

The Rose-throated Becard was not to be seen at Patagonia rest stop early the next morning. He has not been seen yet this year I understand. Past years he has built his nest alongside Sonoita Creek opposite the rest stop and vainly waited for a mate. Perhaps he has found a more productive spot at last. Good luck to him.
Thick-billed Kingbirds were very much in evidence and a Canyon Wren entertained us with his song and gave good close-up views as he moved among the rocks close to the road. Ravens passed over as did a pair of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks.
A Lucy’s Warbler was calling insistently from the hillside and I mistook it’s clear song for a wren. Martin found a Lazuli Bunting which at last gives me reason for buying that red ink refill. My first lifer since starting the blog. Actually the theme of the morning was red. Northern Cardinals, Summer Tanagers, Vermillion Flycatchers. Oh for some light to take pictures by.
We left the rest stop as the rain began. It lasted through breakfast at the Stage Coach Inn and for the rest of the morning while we sat under the awning at the Patons’ house. This is supposed to be May in Arizona. Still, what better way to sit out a rain shower?
Our count for the garden was over 30 birds including Yellow-breasted Chat, Violet-crowned Hummingbird, and a disputed Mississippi Kite. It was out of it’s normal range, but there was no doubt in my mind that it was a Mississippi Kite. The obvious candidate was a Grey Hawk, but there was no sign at all of any banding in the tail. Nor was there a white vent or rump when it flew. It was a slim bird, grey with a flat, white head. It took a turn around the locality and showed no patterning on it’s underside apart from a slightly darker tail. So my red pen is out again.At the front of the house a Cassin's Kingbird was hawking from the wire.
The Patons deserve a mention before we drive off. Wally and Marion hang feeders all around their house and welcome anyone who wishes to come and visit. They thoughtfully provide a shade pagoda with chairs, field guides and identification guides for the hummingbirds. Thanks to them and don’t forget to donate to the sugar fund if you visit.
There was not much left to see in Sonoita Creek Reserve that we had not already seen in the Paton’s garden so we took a cursory drive along the road that runs parallel to the creek. A Black Vulture was added along with good views of the local White-tailed (Coues’) Deer and, just as we were leaving, our best look at the Greater Roadrunner when 2 crossed the road in front of us. We wasted some time trying to find a sophisticated spot for lunch. By sophisticated, I mean we were hoping for cutlery, but had no luck, settling for yet another fast meal in Continental. By the time we reached Santa Rita Lodge, we only had about an hour of useful daylight left. We needed to be at the lodge to see the Elf Owl leave it's roost.

We had heard that an Elegant Trogon had been showing well the previous day on the Mount Baldy Trail. An hour looking for trogons was an hour well spent in my book. Actually my book also said that taped recordings were forbidden in Madera Canyon. I only noticed this section later and am ashamed to admit that I played a recording to whistle-up a trogon

Playback is a very effective way to catch a bird's attention, but I agree with the authorities in Madera Canyon to ban playback where rare or sensitive birds are nesting. I was thoughtless.

The Elf Owl, though we were assured that they still nested there, did not show. They have been nesting in a telegraph (utility) pole at Santa Rita Lodge for some years now. Someone suggested that the temperature was keeping them indoors. The temperature had by now dropped below 70F and overcast. This was wonderful weather for heat-haters like Martin and myself, but not for Elf Owls it would seem.
As we waited for the Elf Owls to show, we tried to identify the music of the night. Most easily recognised was the tri-syllabic call of the Whip-poor-will. After we had given up on the owls, we were returning to our chaletand the whip-poor-wills were calling very close by. I shone my torch up into the tree and through a fortuitous gap in the foliage, shone the eyes of 2 Whip-poor-wills.

Day 3. 22nd May.

The Santa Rita Lodge was good value at $95 between us.
We had arranged a bird walk for Friday morning and sure enough, at 07.oo, Jack Murray arrived and took us, with 3 others down to the edge of the grasslands at Proctor Parking.
This gave us a good view out over the grasslands wherein, he claimed, Botteri’s Sparrow lived. Having never even heard of Boterri’s Sparrow before now, it suddenly became a priority. We didn’t find one, but in the sage words that Martin saves for occasions such as these, “it gives me a good excuse to come back and look again.”
In conversation with Jack, he was telling us that he did 80% of his birding by ear these days as his eyes were beginning to let him down. His hearing though was still reliable and he was able to pick out birds long before we got close to them.
We did find Bell's Vireo, Summer Tanager, Black-chinned Sparrow, Turkey Vulture and Verdin before heading back up the slope.

We stopped at Kubo Madera where Jack knew of a Flame-coloured Tanager, apparently the only one in the USA. It was calling from a large, leafy Arizona Sycamore which made him very difficult to locate amongst the superficially similar Black-headed Grosbeaks. While we were trying, a Magnificent Hummingbird came to the feeders nearby and a trogon called from the adjacent property.
Eventually the tanager came down to the feeders at Kubo Madera and gave us a good view.

Finally, we moved up onto the mountain and headed up the Vault Mine Trail. Her were Painted Redstarts, Lucy's warbler and Plumbeous Vireos. One of our group was especially keen to see a Red-faced Warbler. He became quite ecstatic when Jack tracked one down after hearing it calling.
Acorn Woodpeckers were common throughout the forst. A male Hepatic Tanager showed off above us and Yellow-eyed Juncos picked through the leaf-litter on the forest floor.
We reached Jack's objective of a comfortable array of rocks within sight of a trogon's nesting area. Here we sat to wait. Trogons patrol up and down the creek beds in their chosen territory, so an effective way to see them is to position yourself well and wait for one to fly past. The trogons did not appear, but a Grace's Warbler showed well while we were waiting.
We started back down the hill and saw the Red-faced Warbler again, this time in full sunshine.
As we neared the bottom of the trail, Jack recognised 3 regular birders who were settled comfortably at the side of the trail. They all had their binoculars trained into a large Arizona Sycamore acroos the path. One of the golden rules of birding is "never ignore anyone with binoculars, especially if they are looking intently at something in a tree."


There was an Elegant Trogon, hidden slightly by the foliage. I use the red ink now as I am still slightly embarrased about the playback incident. With a quick skip back up the trail the angle was sufficient for a decent view and Voila!

So there we are. It was time to return to Phoenix for the flight back to the UK, but it had been a succesful trip. I was returning home with enough lifers for a clumsy turner's handful and I suspect Martin may have scored a couple of armfuls. I hope he enjoyed himself and I will try to tempt him with a trip to Cape Town some time soon.