Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Birds n' Booze: A Classy Weekend in Southeast Arizona

By now everyone's heard of the birding attractions in Southeast Arizona. Every little mountain range has its own specialities and rare species, whether it's Mexican Chickadees and Hummingbirds or Spotted Owls and Montezuma Quail. Too often I launch into panegyrics on the region, and more than a few bird bloggers have filed for restraining orders against my continual ramblings about the place.
But most recently when I travelled down to the Sonoita area, on the southeastern foothills of the Santa Rita Mountains (home of the famous Florida and Madera Canyons), it wasn't with the birds in mind (ok, they're always in mind), but for the wine. 
Yes indeedy, with their predominantly spanish varietals, the Arizona wine circuit is booming, and some outstanding, award-winning wines are being produced down at the Callahan, Doz Cabezas, Sand Reckoner, and Lightning Ridge wineries. It was early February, and the plan was to stay in the area at a friend's house for the weekend and soak in the scenery, along with gallons of adult grape juice, before heading over to the famous Whitewater Draw near Willcox to observe the massive flocks of noisy Sandhill Cranes and the marshy entourage that can be found nearby. 

Before we made it to the vineyards or the Whitewater Draw, we made a stop and explored the oldest standing Spanish mission in America, founded in 1691a.d. at Tumacacori. 

Set against the gloomy winter skies that dominate southeastern Arizona in February, the mission was splendidly emanating with that irreplaceable aura of historical worth. Nonetheless, after about ten or fifteen minutes of sight-seeing, I was drawn back outside by the sounds of Sparrows and their ilk.

Chipping and Lark Sparrows were all around the grounds, while Mockingbirds and Phainopeplas dotted the craggy tree tops. The occasional Brewer's and Vesper Sparrow was mixed in with the bunch, along with some other cruelly ambiguous birds like this buffy first-year Chipping Sparrow, which dared me to call him Clay-colored. Nice try young Chipper, nice try...

There is substantial delight to be had simply in driving through the grassy, rolling hills of Sonoita and Patagonia, especially with overcast skies. The pasture fences are strewn with Lark Buntings and Red-tailed Hawks, while patient Harriers soar ever-present in the foreboding skies.

After visiting the old mission and some other fun sites in the Tumcacori area, we drove to the Sonoita wine circuit for an afternoon of semi-refined revelry.  We had a marvelous time visiting the Callahan and Dos Cabezas tasting rooms, hob-knobbing with winos and growers and generally doing our best to make Bacchus proud. Forgive the grainier phone photos. Saturday was overcast and the day for the Grapes; Sunday was the day for Birds.

There's nothing like right out of the barrel!

Unhappy weather was brooding in Arizona all weekend, and we were regularly rained on throughout our travels. This all made for an absolutely stunning drive out to the Whitewater Draw on Sunday morning, as the thick clouds just started to break up and let in the light. The golden plains were so saturated with color and the sky seemed to hold every hue of blue and then purple as the sun finally had its way and reasserted itself in the sky.

The Whitewater Draw, located about thirty minutes northeast of Bisbee and Douglas in the southeast corner of the state, is one of the state's most famous birding sites as it pulls in thousands of wintering Sandhill Cranes every year. As we were approaching the preserve we saw hundreds of skeins spreading out over the farm fields in search of fresh grazing grounds. We arrived at the Draw a bit too late for the grand dawn take off, but there were still plenty of chatty birds lingering in the shallow waters. From miles out the cacophony of honking Cranes echoed in our ears. The anxious, somewhat abrasive honk of the Crane is a very endearing sounds, one I regret not recording.

With the waters being pretty far removed from the pedestrian areas (that's half the appeal for the Cranes), the opportunities for up close viewing are pretty rare. Every once in a while though some Cranes would fly by close overhead, or off into a rainbow. There's got to be more than one pot of gold hidden out there.

While the Cranes are the main attraction, they're not the only birds on display. The tall marsh grass around the inundated lowlands is teeming with Sparrows, and smaller groups of Waterfowl also ply their trade in the shallows. Smaller birds like these Northern Pintails and Green-winged Teal cling to the underbellies of the Cranes and clean them of parasites. Scientists call it a symbiotic relationship.

As one might guess, the Draw is also bubbling with raucous Marsh Wrens. These birds are often a torment for photography, but with so many around the odds are finally in the photographer's favor. The Whitewater Draw allows one distant looks at huge birds, and up close views of tiny birds. 

Meadowlarks and Thrashers inhabit the surrounding Grasslands, and with a little bit of luck one might hear the trill or catch a glimpse of a Grasshopper Sparrow. While pausing to scrape some mud (there's plenty of that too after some rain), I even noticed a delightful ruddy little rump slouching down from a  
scraggily bush. The black spots were promising too. We had gone to the Draw simply to see and hear the Crane spectacle, and we would also be heading back to Phoenix loaded up with wine (Callahan Tempranillo and Back Lot 10'...mmmmmm). Now there was a potential Lifer bird here to ice the cake.

Ice the cake it did! Ok, it didn't actually ice a cake, but I did see it poop. A pair of Ruddy Ground Doves, though not overly splendid or charming in their appearance and demeanor, were arguably the highlight, and an unexpected one at that, of an already amazing trip.

With all the birding, scenery, and now fantastic vineyards, there are too many reason to be in southeast AZ. Why anyone lives anywhere else (myself included) is beyond me. Birding is fun, and then there's birding with wine fun...