Sunday, July 22, 2012

Going Han Solo At San Pedro

As a part of my trip to the Huachuca Mountains, I paid a visit to the San Pedro Riparian Conservation Area, a nice strip of greenery just west of Tombstone. The target species for this area was Yellow-breasted Chat and Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and while the trip was ultimately a success, it was a struggle. Heading up Miller Canyon, the trails and the area are pretty straightforward. There is lots of room to roam in the San Pedro grasslands and chaparral, and unfortunately when I'm going 'Han Solo' (alone), getting lost becomes a real problem, and it's exacerbated when I'm driving. After about an hour of detours and switch-backs and run-ins with the increasingly suspicious Arizona border patrol agents, I eventually settled down around the Charleston Bridge in the San Pedro area, and got down to the business of birding.

I parked near a trail head northeast of the bridge and was greeted by the day's first bird, which had parked himself around the same time. It's hard not to love Ash-throated Flycatchers, especially when they come to great you at your car.

I could only interpret this bird's visit and acknowledgment as a good omen. Acting as the hand of fate, he soon flew to an adjacent tree and directed me in the best direction for my quarry. Such a good sport and always eager to help, he totally didn't mind that I was there to see other, more glamorous birds. Ash-throated Flycatcher: Man's second-best friend.

The Charleston River (more of a crippled stream) runs through the middle of the San Pedro refuge, supporting a green strip of willows and cottonwoods amidst the surrounding desert scrub. Though it's no Mississippi, this rangy river provides some prime real estate for Yellow-billed Cuckoos and other riparian passerines.

The knocking calls of the Cuckoos drew me back and forth across the water, and though these elusive birds stayed high in the canopy, I was able to sneak in a few glimpses. At least from this angle you can kinda see the tear-drop white patches on the tail, one of the Cuckoo's more notable features.

The Yellow-billed Cuckoos are not the only canopy dwellers in the summer time; birds like this aptly named Summer Tanager also add some color and verve to the tree-top goings on. Tanagers and Orioles are some of the few reasons to look forward to an Arizona summer, but they can be very stubborn photographic subjects.

There's plenty of red to see lower down in the trees too, principally provided by the stern and stunning Vermillion Flycatchers. Northern Cardinals and House Finches do their part as well, but the blazing red on this flycatcher is incomparable.

The riverbanks are lined with green, but behind the green grows the brown grass and shrub which, thoough less pleasing to the eye, still provides habitat to other interesting birds. I believe this is a female Lazuli Bunting, demonstrating here why her coloration has its own advantages, even if it has a weaker aesthetic than the male's.

The female Bunting's plumage was muted and she stayed very quiet too. The same cannot be said for the more boisterous and beautiful Yellow-breasted Chats, which sang out their territorial claims from atop the mesquite and ironwood trees on the perimeter of the grasslands.

For a long time I had been wanting to see America's largest Warbler and the Yellow-breasted Chats did not disappoint. The San Pedro preserve doesn't have quite the same 'wow' factor as the canyons around southeast Arizona, but it does drawn in some specialty birds that you won't find higher up in the mountains. It's definitely worth a visit, just make sure you have a map when you go!