These past several weeks have seen some great birding among the familiar haunts and with the more familiar species of central Arizona. But as with any family or high school buddies reunion, one can only tolerate the familiarity, the repetition, the redundant stories for so long before needing to break free and explore new places and relationships again.
Luckily, exploring is pretty easy now with Federal and State highways. Even more luckily, simply taking the I-10 to the I-19 south, by the Santa Rita Mountains and Tubac, will lead to some absurdly good birding.
I met up with Phoenix and ABA birding guru Magill Weber before driving down to join forces with perhaps Canada's most accomplished inked naturalist, Paul Riss, to scrutinize some fantastic spots off the I-19 in southeastern AZ. As March has gone the way of February and the Arizona winter that never was, we had our hopes set on some precocious migrants and one home-steading vagrant.
After rendezvousing at a shady Fry's Grocery store at 5:00am to buy supplies, drugs, etc. and consolidate vehicles, we quickly made the drive farther south and arrived near Ron Morrison Park in Tubac just after sunrise. Our first bird contact, apart from the obligatory roadside RTHA and CORA, was a vocal Cassin's Kingbird and some Vermilion Flycatchers (you know you're in a great spot when these are you first birds) and soon after an obliging male Broad-billed Hummingbird.
Somewhat unexpectedly, this turned out to be the most prominent bird throughout the day. While walking through the mesquite bosque portion of the De Anza Trail, and even after in Madera Canyon, we were positively swamped with Broad-bills. We had four dozen of them recorded within two hours, and pretty much stopped counting after that. They were everywhere and it was scary, scary cool and scary regular scary like you're in danger scary. I've never seen so many Hummingbirds of a single species, or even mixed together.
As we started our early walk along the De Anza trail--a picturesque riparian channel accompanying the Santa Cruz "river--we kept ears and eyes and potatoes peeled for some of our early migrant targets. Gray, Common Black, and Zone-tailed Hawks were all moving along the corridor. Gray Hawks were vocal very early on but it was the Common Black that we first saw rise above the tree line, followed not long after by a Zone-tailed blending into a Vulture kettle. The Gray Hawks called continuously and in pairs throughout the morning, but frustrated our attempts to locate them through the canopy.
We continued to marvel at the masses and movement of the Broad-billed Hummingbirds along the bosque and finally arrived at a cut away in the dense undergrowth near the creek. Here, past a barbed wire fence and nestled into some intimidatingly thick riparian hedges, we began a stake out for the 'crazy' portion of our trip.
An ABA Code 5 Sinaloa Wren had been seen and heard in this area for several months now, one of TWO such birds to be nesting in southeast Arizona this year. The other bird, which was actually more readily visible, was by Fort Huachuca farther east.
While we waited, Bell's Vireos maintained a steady chorus in the background as we picked up Cassin's and Warbling in the overhead foliage. Kinglets caused constant distraction with their clicks and movements while rustling Song Sparrows further complicated our task. After about fifteen minutes we caught a flash of something promising.
A small Wren with bold white supercilium and chestnut brown tail made a quick foray from the brush but disappeared without diagnostic views. We were all pretty confident in the ID, the white supercilium and long tail ruling out House Wren while the darker brown on the tail ruled out Bewick's, but one doesn't scan a Code 5 so quickly and walk away.
Except that is actually what we did. Figuring the bird would pop up again later in the morning and feeling a pressing need to better explore the riparian corridor, we ambled onward. We were vindicated in our judgment as it was during the second portion of the trek that we got visuals on our migrant hawks and even the elusive Grays, which were most likely not migrating so much as staking out territory.
We had a few other nice sightings along the second portion of the De Anza trail as well. First of Year Pac-Slope Flycatcher, Chihuahuan Raven, and, of course, 9,743 Broad-billed Hummingbirds added to the ensemble. The Bewick's Wrens, often a source of audio birding frustration, were also in fine form.
After securing our Hawks and satisfying the birder's need to walk and spy, we returned to the Sinaloa Wren stake out where three gentlemen who were occupying the post with us earlier proudly proclaimed we had missed the bird by mere minutes--perhaps vindicating their own resilience in not being hot-tempered, impatient birders. Whatever the case, we settled in again and weathered some birder small talk until, mercifully soon, Paul spotted the bird reemerging from its tangle.
Of course, for super chill birders, finding a Code 5 in twenty total minutes of looking, after racking up a bunch of other stuff, is pretty blasé. We played it cool, cool like an arctic-dwelling paulriss...
Magill and I had to be back in Phoenix by evening so we could only bird until 2pm or so. Since Paul had not birded in the area before, we figured that Madera Canyon, farther north up the I-19, would be a great spot to continue racking up the lifers and put us all closer to our return destinations.
Heading up Whitehouse Canyon Road, the perfunctory stop at Proctor was initially disappointing. We added Hutton's Vireo and Phainopepla, as well as Mexican Jay and Black-tailed Gnatcatcher to the list, but found the area to be relatively dead overall. In smart response to the rising sun and temperatures, many of the birds were restricting their movements and visibility.
While giving a few noisy Jays our attention, a colorful surprise (given the elevation) flew into the white oak, giving Paul another gorgeous lifer for the trip. Painted Redstarts really are breathtaking birds, face-melters on a high level of the face-melting hierarchy.
We continued to gain elevation, overwhelmed at times with the many picnickers and hikers moving up and down the canyon. We stopped by the Santa Rita Lodge and Madera Kubo to scan the feeders, picking up some really ratty-looking immature Magnificent Hummingbirds and nest-building Acorn Woodpeckers before heading further up to the Carrie Nation Trail in search of AZ Woodpecker and Olive Warbler.
At this point the time had ticked well-past high noon and overall activity was dying down, but a very unexpected sighting quickly galvanized the group. While discussing the interesting peculiarities of a large sycamore tree, we observed a young but fully plumed male Elegant Trogon perched in a large alligator juniper tree nearby. This sighting occurred about a 1/2 mile up the Carrie Nation Trail, near the first stream/wash crossing. Both parties stared back and forth, the bird no doubt less gobsmacked with us than we were with it, and after a couple of minutes it departed further down the trail.
Any Trogon sighting will make one's day, and this bird is pretty early for Madera, so with it being a totally unexpected sighting, a Year Bird for Magill and myself and a stunning lifer for Paul, it was a highlight almost equal to the comparably drab Sinaloa Wren.
Understandably for anyone seeing their first Elegant Trogon, the Madera Canyon classic, a single, perfect tear rolled down Paul's cheek. We've all been there, or at least wanted to be.
We never did turn up Olive Warbler or AZ Woodpecker, but another stop by the Madera Kubo and a scan of its surrounding sycamore trees produced no less than seven Townsend's Warblers, and we were able to pick up a few more species for the day list, such as an oddly lacking House Wren and Rufous-crowned Sparrow. Can you find him below?
Phoenix birding has been largely successful and very enjoyable this winter, but even so it can't really compare to the density of fantastic birding down south. As we walked back to the car and continued chatting up different hotspots for Paul to visit while staying in the area, I was struck with regret at having to depart after so brief a foray. So many sites with so many sights...birding down there is just silly good.