Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Birding to the Brink: Huachuca Lowlands and Sierra Vista

It's the middle of May, and needless to say this past weekend was one of Heavy Birding. I logged about 12 hours of sleep over the course of the weekend, including Sunday night, picked up 3 lifers, took two birds off the 'heard-only' portion of my list, and logged about 700 miles. It started early Saturday with the 370mile round trip chase for the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper in Cameron, AZ, and continued through the Huachuca Mountains on Sunday and the Santa Ritas on Monday. Perhaps the most remarkable sighting was one I missed--the first breeding record of breeding N. Saw-Whet Owls in Maricopa County, which is as simultaneously awesome and tragic as it is predictable (In this sense that I'd have to miss something amazing). There were plenty of fantastic birds over the weekend, most of which were not adequately photographed, and suffice it to say enduring the last couple weeks of the school year will be very difficult now. 
Early Sunday I joined up with the Texas birdwatching machine Nate McGowan in Tucson, where he had bravely roosted at a shady Red Roof Inn and had his pick up high quality Tucsonian narcotics. For my part I discovered the only known McDonald's in NOrth American that doesn't open until 6am right when I needed a restroom.  It could only get better, then, as we headed down the I-90 towards the Huachucas.  

With a primordial dawn and a fair amount of wind, we first stopped near the Maricopa picnic area to try for the Sinaloa Wren seen a few days previous. Birding in that immediate area turned up plenty of birds, but no SIWR. We had Bewick's and House, plus all three western Tanager species in fair numbers, Grosbeaks, a couple Lazuli Buntings, Plumbeous and Cassin's Vireo, Bushtit and Bridled Titmice...the list goes on and we had most of these species, with vocalizations, all in the dense vegetation in the SIWR area. Some stakeouts are really boring but this area was distractingly good. The SIWR had not been seen on Saturday nor that morning, but maybe our miss was due, in part to the other birdies. 

Rufous-crowned Sparrows were singing relatively high in the trees--an usual sight for scrub dwellers--and there were several very vocal Dusky-capped Flycatchers around. This myiarchus was a photo-target and I was very glad to get on with the crushing as the sun made its way over the mountains. Of course, they turned out to be some of the most common birds on our trip.

Since we had such good birding so early on the Huachuca Trail and we were holding out for the wren, we didn't press much farther down. The possibility of early Buff-breasted, Sulphur-bellied and Other-Stomach-Named Flycatcher farther down was intriguing, but I figured we'd have these species later on (mistaken assumption, but a seemingly safe bet at the time). 
Around 6:30am we were joined by some additional birders at our stakeout. The added eyes did not turn up the Code 5 rarity, though one energetic and defensive lady in a long jean skirt swore a Bewick's Wren to be our target. As the sun rose higher into the sky a few more melodies, or more accurately, noises, joined the chorus.

A little late to rise, I guess, the Western Wood-Pewees now filled the area with their raucous call and impressive fly catching. They don't have the color of Buff-breasted or Sulphur-bellied, of course, but Flycatchers are probably the best group of birds, so even the comparatively dull Wood-Pewee is a welcome attendant to a crush-party.

With so many sites on our itinerary we couldn't stay too long at the Sinaloa haunt, but the Maricopa Camp area was absolutely teeming with birds. I'm still ruing the missed Flycatchers further up the trail, and will definitely swing by again in July when Berylline Hummingbird hopefully shows up.
Tanagers are a group of birds I have not at all properly crushed, but this certainly is a place for it; there's potential, and I think we had over three dozen species or so in this acre of space in an hour and a half.
It was one of those moments of pure pleasure birding, birding so good you feel hedonistic, almost guilty--almost. Hiking and 'sploring are enjoyable aspects of the birding regimen, and sometimes they're straight necessary to see some species, but often times picking a single spot and practicing patience pays the biggest dividends. While we didn't pick up rarities, the birds-per-branch ratio in Huachuca Canyon is absurd. The hardest point of access is navigating through the military base to get there; its streets are more confusing than the turnpikes and culture of Boston.

The largest stop on Sunday was Miller Canyon, but along the way we perused to Sierra Vista pull offs, checking the grassy hillsides in rocky areas for elusive Montezuma Quail. We didn't want this to be a a long stop, so I quickly broke down and played some tapes. In pretty short order we were rewarded with the shrill whistle of the male MOQU, but couldn't get visuals. This bird is tough to see, but I underestimated exactly how difficult, despite failing in the past. After an unsuccessful period searching for the birds we started walking back to the car only to flush three of them--2 females and a male--that had been sitting maybe ten feet away from us.
It was ├╝ber embarrassing. I was expecting the birds to be farther away, and thus wasn't looking close to my feet. Their hurried, vibrato take off was startling enough in the chilly, silent morning, and the stinging humiliation of knowing the crushing opportunity was so close if I had only noticed the proximal birds was a bit hard to stomach. The three adults flushed far away into the tall grass and were not seen or heard further. Again we started walking to the car, and AGAIN we flushed more quail!

This time it was two chicks, and once more they were almost underfoot before they flew, far closer to us than where we were scanning. The chicks landed close enough that I could get diagnostic photos, but the 'what-if' scenario was excrutiating. These gorgeous and secretive birds all held still until we were maybe ten feet away. That means if I'd only seen them at 11 feet, they could've been destroyed by the crushinator (*which does not actually harm the birds). Oh well. Much like Ft. Huachuca, this will be another stop next time I'm in the area.

Miller Canyon is probably one of the top 5 birding sites in Arizona and thus deserves its own post. The start to the morning was filled with some pedestrian conquests of common flycatchers, and some fancy-pants failures with the rarer stuff. Sierra Vista was almost a Pyrrhic victory, such do I covet a covey of these Quail. Enough whining though. There were many more birds to see.