Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A Chase to Louisiana, with Grasslands in between

This past Saturday Muriel Neddermeyer, Tommy DeBardeleben, and I went chasing down south for a Louisiana Waterthrush and some local specialties in the nice October weather. Our first stop was a dawn visit to the San Rafael Grasslands, where we hoped to see some early Baird's Sparrows or even a Short-eared Owl. Both of these species were a long shot only halfway into October, but we were in the area and it would've saved a much chillier trip in December--be looking out for that adventure in a couple of months. Although we dipped on our targets here, we still enjoyed the open golden expanses of the grasslands, and the many fence-line sentinels that monitored our approach through their valley.

Meadowlarks are conspicuously seen and heard just about anywhere with open fields and fences. The San Rafael Grasslands host one of the westernmost populations of Eastern Meadowlarks, and we had about a dozen perched intermittently throughout our time there. They're usually a skittish bird, but every once in a while one might stand its ground. Of course, when it does so, it won't be facing you...

The most numerous birds, by far, were Savannah Sparrows. Although they appear longer-tailed and more round-headed than our target Baird's Sparrow, from more than ten or fifteen feet each one of these birds usually merits a binocular examination, and since we saw literally hundreds of them...well...I've never been so sick of these Sparrows in all my life. It's a shame when looking for one uncommon bird kinda ruins another, even if it's only for a little while. Savannah Sparrow representatives and I have since met and reconciled our acrimony, but it will take time for the wounds to heal.

Grasshopper Sparrows were a less common but equally frustrating tease in our search for Baird's Sparrows. Since they're also of the flat-headed, short-tailed ammodramus genus, they look even more similar to the Baird's. A couple of months ago when the Grasslands were much prettier, the Grasshopper Sparrows were a target bird. Now it too was a red herring. On the other hand, seeing Savannah's or Grasshopper's doesn't mean I would've seen Baird's instead, so it's better to have these handsome birds than nothing.

A few Horned Larks joined the Meadowlarks in adding to color to the predominantly brown scene, but even their pizazz was not enough to keep us lingering in the grasslands. We walked around for a couple of hours and got many spiky grass seeds well-wedged into our socks, but it soon became apparent we'd missed the Baird's, and we moved on to our next destination.

There is a funny little birding strip off the I-19 near Tubac and Tumacacori. Turning off the interstate and driving only a couple hundred yards east, one runs into the De Anza Trail along the Santa Cruz River. The River has pretty low water levels but its close proximity to the Mexican border and temperate climates make it a great migrant and vagrant trap. In the last several weeks there have been multiple Waterthrushes, both Louisiana and Northern. The Louisiana had been in place for several weeks, indicating it quite liked the little stream and might even stay through the winter. We quite like getting an eastern Warbler in Arizona, so it was mutually agreed upon that we and the bird all meet up near the Tubac bridge.

Tommy was the first onto the bird, and we briefly saw it foraging around in tangles near the water's edge, as Waterthrushes are supposed to do. We lost sight for a little while and when we relocated the bird it was staying much higher in the cottonwoods, somewhat uncharacteristically. The darker, bolder streaking and clean throat help distinguish this bird from the Northern Waterthrush, as did its call note and the incessant, memorizing tail bobbing.

Pulling a lifer out of the tangled woody margins in Arizona is always an occasion for up thumbs.

The Tubac area provided excellent birding in general, with Western Tanagers, Nuthatches, Goldfinches, Buntings, Gray Hawks, and several species of Woodpecker, such as this Ladder-backed, all registering for our visit.

On the way back to Phoenix we swung by the Santa Cruz Flats in Eloi, about halfway between Tucson and Phoenix, to look for Caracara and Mountain Plover in the agricultural fields. We dipped again on these targets, but had some fun sightings along the corrals.

We also found a locally more rare Yellow-bellied Sapsucker at the famous Baumgartner corral, which must be carefully navigated to avoid trespassing, but has yielded other goodies such as Rufous-backed Robin in the past.

There were a lot of misses on this trip but also a lot of great sightings, and none of the misses were on vagrant birds, so at least we had the Waterthrush and can try again for everything else in a few weeks. A Saturday full of birding and beautiful skies? No complaints.


  1. Looks like the 3 of you had a great trip! Congrats on the LOWA!

    1. Cheers Gordon,

      It's good to get at least one vagrant Warbler in October.

  2. Good deal! Savannah Sparrows are soooo good at pretending to be other birds. I really like the blackbird/cow shot. Just a heads up, your birding buddy there appears to be tangled in some kind of bondage gear...

    1. Yes, we caught those YHBBs and Cows being close friends and I think they were a bit embarrassed.

      I must wonder now, Jen, how you recognized that gear so quickly...birds of a feather...

  3. Freakin awesome post Laurence!!! What a fun day that was. I think the other 4 targets will show up next time!

  4. Congrats on the LA Waterthrush lifer! They have a limited range in MN, and we looked (unsucessfully) for one last summer. We should work out some sort of eastern/western warbler exchange program. We have gobs of warblers here, but I wish we could get some visits from your western species.

  5. Fun, fun , fun! Glad you found your birds!