Sunday, February 19, 2012

Birding in Southeast AZ

I went down to Tucson on Friday evening for some marathon birding with Robert Mortensen, Jeremy Medina, and Geniece Baer. We saw a total of 100 species and I acquired 16 new birds for my Life List. It was one of the single most productive and enjoyable 24-hours periods of birding I've ever experienced, and will definitely be one of the highlights in my birding career for years to come.

Here, avid birders Jeremy, Geniece, and Robert stand atop a bench identifying Cormorants in the lake below. 
As we toured some of the southeastern Arizona hotspots we saw lots of old species, new species, common species, rare species, species that can be found throughout North America, and species that are endemic to this little corner of the state. In short, it was a great trip. I'll try to give a good overview here, and then fill in with more specific and detailed posts through this next week.

Saturday was a full day of birding, and we stayed glued to our binoculars from sun-up to sun-down. It was still dark as we headed towards Florida Canyon, hoping to see the Rufous-Capped Warblers.
We started our hike at dawn, and even with the morning chill it did not take very long for the birds to make their presence known. We heard Rock Wrens, Spotted Towhees, and Kinglets as we climbed up the little gorge. A few Canyon Wrens climbed out to greet the rising sun as we started to follow the little stream running down Florida Canyon, reportedly the preferred habitat of the Warblers.

We were about a 1/4 mile up from the creek dam when we heard warbler activity. The first sightings proved to be Ruby-Crowned Kinglets, and next came a single Olive Warbler. The Rufous-Capped Warblers came out from the scrub oaks soon after and began foraging along the stream, oblivious to our presence.

At one point there were three of the little birds very close to our group. Though being in the dimly lit canyon made photography tricky, it was still a clear-as-day sighting. It was a wonderful experience that alone would have made the Tucson trip worthwhile.

Our primary goal being achieved and with many more places still to go, we began our swift descent back to the car, meeting Acorn Woodpeckers, Cardinals, Towhees and Rick Taylor (!), author of Birds of Southeastern Arizona, along the way.

The Rio Rico ponds, a nice riparian habitat on the way to Patagonia Lake, was our next destination. The ponds were just off of the roadside, and provided immediate sightings of Cinnamon Teal, Pied-Billed Grebes, and Mexican Mallards. Along the woody margins of the water we saw Vermillion Flycatchers, Abert's Towhees and several more Cardinals, and there were Mountain Bluebirds in the adjacent field.

While pursuing some Song Sparrows and Lincoln's Sparrows near the swampy perimeter, I also stumbled upon this solitary Hermit Thrush, a lovely new bird that I probably should have seen long before now. The dense vegetation made auto-focussing impossible and I had to try my hand at manual. (I know, I have a hard life).

We progressed to Lake Pena Blanca, a very quiet and peaceful canyon lake that provides the perfect sort of habitat for the more diminutive birds, such as the elusive Least Grebe, the rarest lifer of the day.

The little lake was also popular with Ruddy Ducks and Ring-Necked Ducks. We heard House Wrens and Bewick's Wrens calling along the shore, and found a little group of Rufous-Capped Sparrows near the exit. Rufous-Capped Sparrows, Rufous-Winged Sparrows, and Rufous-Capped Warblers made for a very Rufousy day.

The next stop was Patagonia Lake, one of the most well-known and fruitful birding spots around Tucson. Although we dipped on the reported Elegant Trogon and Black-Capped Gnatcatcher (so did everyone else we talked to), it was indeed a fantastic birding area, and we continued racking up the life birds.

We saw plenty of Green-Winged Teal, Double-Crested Cormorants, and a few Bufflehead out on the lake, as well as this single female Blue-Winged Teal trying to blend into the reeds. She was doing pretty well Except for her rather conspicuous patch of blue.

Trails move along the lake shore for a 1/2 mile or so before entering the dense oak and coniferous woodlands where the birding action really takes off. They were teeming with Bridled Titmice, Ladder-Backed Woodpeckers, and Common Ground Doves. It was also a three Flycatcher day with the Gray, the Ash-Throated, and the Hammonds all giving us great looks.

All three of the Flycatchers were new birds for me, and the Hammonds provided a very nice and open pose, a rare courtesy from these busy woodlands birds.

One of the last and most satisfying sightings at Patagonia was a pair of roosting Great-Horned Owls. They can be seen regularly in Phoenix, and we had already driven by one in the early morning. But seeing them in these scrubby woods really lends an ancient and serene quality both to the birds and to their forest.

The last stop of the day was the internationally known Paton House in Patagonia. For decades, Wally and Marion Patton supplied scores of seed and hummingbird feeders at their residence. It is one of the few places in North America where Violet-Crowned Hummingbirds are consistently seen, and it is also a harbor to many other migrating and seasonal birds, often providing the first and last glimpses of species as they travel between the U.S. and Mexico. The Patons have passed away, but the property is still maintained as a small birding Mecca. 

True to form, the house was bursting with birds. We saw Finches, Nuthatches, Sparrows, Cardinals, Pyrrhuloxia, Gila Woodpeckers, Wrens, Doves, Quail, Lazuli Bunting (another first) and, of course, some Hummingbirds. The Violet-Crowned made only a brief appearance, while this jaw-droppingly beautiful Broad-Billed Hummingbird sat for two whole minutes, which we all know in hummingbird-time is about thirty-seven years. 

I wonder who would look at this bird and first think, "Wow! Check out the broad bill on that little guy!" I know more goes into a name than just the initial observation, but it's fun to think about. As the sun set on this wonderful day of birding, the evening light made for some color-saturated Cardinals, and some mournful Pyrrhuloxias.

The unique geography of Tucson draws in the birds, and the birds draw in the people. I had a great time with Robert, Jeremy, and Geniece. We were especially lucky to have Jeremy share with us his knowledge of the area and the birds. I hope to be drawn back very soon.