Monday, August 25, 2014

Part 5: Patagonia to Mount Ord

Bob's Gone Birding on Mount Ord!

Abert's Towhee
After seeing the Lucifer Hummingbird at the Ash Canyon B&B, I had some thinking to do.  I spent a chunk of that evening looking at the list of birds I had seen thus far and thinking about the options I had the next day.  I knew I had to end up in Scottsdale, but where I went along the way was pretty flexible.  My list of targets I had failed to see was shorter than I expected, but long enough to give me some direction.  In the end I decided on a fairly direct route.

I left Sierra Vista early the next morning and drove directly to the Paton House in Patagonia.  I had read that their feeders often hosted an Abert's Towhee,  a bird very high om my most wanted list.  I arrived to find a small group of birders already in place including one guy who held a small camera just inches from one of the hummingbird feeders.  He was remarkably patient and remarkably motionless.  Sure enough, after a few minutes a hummingbird flew to that feeder and the guy snapped away.

Ladder-backed Woodpecker
It was a large yard with feeders everywhere I looked.  On one end of the yard there were White-winged Doves, House Finches, and Lesser Goldfinches.  In the center of the yard, suet feeders attracted Gila and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers.  On the other end near a water feature there was seed on the ground with an Inca Dove enjoying its meal.  And within a few minutes the dove was joined by an Abert's Towhee.

I sat under the tents and watched the feeders for a couple of hours.  I saw Violet-crowned, Broad-billed, and Black-chinned Hummingbirds.  A Phainopepla dropped by as did a family of Gambel's Quail.  A Blue Grosbeak joined the House Finches at one feeder and a White-breasted Nuthatch crawled around on a stump near the Inca Doves.  Then a Curve-billed Thrasher joined the White-winged Doves at the west end of the yard.

I left the yard thinking I had seen everything that Paton House had to offer.  I was wrong.  I sat in the car in the parking lot munching on a snack when I saw motion just a foot or two away from the hood.  It was a small gray bird with an indistinct eye ring, maybe a soft wash of color under the tail, and a little chestnut colored spot popping up on the head.  It was a Lucy's Warbler!  I nearly spit my lemonade all over the dashboard.  I reached for my camera and got two quick shots off through the tinted window before the bird disappeared.  You can see the pictures here and below.  I wish they were better photos -- but it's a gosh darn Lucy's Warbler!!  Yes, I was thrilled.

My next stop was the fabled Patagonia Roadside Rest.  Almost as soon as I arrived I got my third lifer of the day when I heard a group of immature Thick-billed Kingbirds. Unfortunately, there was no sign of the Rose-throated Becards that have nested there in the past.

Lucy's Warbler through a tinted window.
My final birding destination for the day was a return to Madera Canyon.  Along the way I reached a Border Patrol Checkpoint somewhere north of Nogales.  I was really tempted to yell out the window and ask if I could pet their dog who was sniffing around my car, but that probably wouldn't have been a good idea.  Still, he looked just like Rin Tin Tin and I actually was in Apache Country ...  Anyway, I expected it to be a long delay, but the officers handled things very quickly and I was soon on my way.

On my first visit to Madera Canyon I had dipped on one bird I really wanted to see, so I stopped near Florida Wash and walked along the road a little.  I scanned the tops of the bushes until I heard the call I was hoping for - a Rufous-winged Sparrow.  I pulled out an iPod and played the song for myself to be sure I was correct.  The songs matched.  I followed the repeated song and finally found the bird.  It was the fourth lifer of the day.  After that I decided to spend the balance of the afternoon at Santa Rita Lodge munching on a Klondike bar and watching the feeders.  I had another look at a Plain-capped Starthroat and the more typical feeder birds like Lesser Goldfinches and Black-headed Grosbeaks.  In all, it was a wonderful day.  I was at 51 lifers for the trip and one day to go.

Perhaps if I was following a traditional itinerary my final stop would have been Mount Lemmon, but I like to look for places that are off the beaten path.  So instead I spent my final day on Mount Ord, an under-birded spot northwest of Scottsdale.  The road up the mountain is narrow and rough with just a few pullouts for safe birding.  Nonetheless, I had some luck almost immediately.  Within the first quarter mile I had a quick but definitive look at a Gray Vireo, lifer #52 for the trip.  A moment later while watching a Zone-tailed Hawk fly directly over head, I heard another of my target birds singing quite close to me.  After a quick search I located a Black-chinned Sparrow, another lifer.  One of the sources I had read in preparation for this trip had asserted that both of these species were almost guaranteed in the first part of Mount Ord, and here they were!  How cool is that?

A textbook look at a Zone-tailed Hawk
Farther up the mountain, a gray bird popped out of the grass, ran along the road and immediately disappeared again.  It was a Scaled Quail!  I had searched for this bird on nearly every one of the previous nine days, and finally I had seen one.  At that point I was completely satisfied and would have been content if the day ended right there.  However, I continued up the mountain, pulling off where the road forked.  I birded around the area and stumbled on the final lifer of this extraordinary trip, a Juniper Titmouse.   I was a little disappointed that all of the day's lifers had successfully avoided being photographed, but how could I complain?  I ended the day where the road reached a closed gate that led to some cell towers just above me.  I ate my final picnic lunch while I looked out over a stunning view.  It was a fitting end to an idyllic trip.

That was where my trip ended, but not where this blog series ends.  During the ten days I wandered around southeast Arizona, my greatest joy - of the many I experienced - was watching hummingbirds.  So the final entry in this series will center on the twelve species I saw and the many photos of them I took.  I hope you enjoy it.

Another View of a Lucy's Warbler

Immature Thick-billed Kingbird

Border patrol Checkpoint on US 19

Female Phainopepla at the Patagonia Roadside Rest

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Part 4: The Canyons of Sierra Vista

Clouds clinging to the peaks along Miller Canyon

I really expected the canyons in the Huachucas to be pretty much like those in the Chiricahuas.  I expected the terrain and the birds to be essentially the same.  Instead, I was treated to very different vistas and some of the most memorable birding experiences of my life. 

My goal that Friday morning was to  enter Fort Huachuca, drive immediately to to the end of Garden Canyon, and work my way back toward the main gate.  As a result, I quickly passed some good habitat, stopping only occasionally.  The first stop happened because I heard a Botteri's Sparrow (left) singing from a high stick in the field.  I pulled off the road long enough to score my first lifer of the Huachucas, and then continued on my way.  I stopped another time for what I believe was an Ash-throated Flycatcher.  I've seen this species in the past, and I think I got this one correct, but flycatchers can be such a challenge!  Someday, I'm going to get good at IDing them.   Further up the road, a Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher sang his heart out from a high perch.

Another pause can be attributed to what I have to admit looked like something out of a Looney Tunes cartoon.  It was a big, white zeppelin hooked to a crane by something that looked like the nipple on a baby's bottle.  My first thoughts were, we're under-funding the military.  And, we'll never be able to sneak up on anyone in that.  And, at least the enemy might not be willing to take it seriously,  Of course, I have no idea what it is for or how it is used, so my wisecracks probably reflect more on me than on the "aerofloat".  But it just wasn't what I was expecting from the modern military.  Judge for yourself!

Is this a new secret weapon?

Then my progress hit an abrupt halt.  I reached the lowest picnic area and found the road ahead blocked to all traffic.  The canyon was closed.  With my plan for the day scuttled, I thought about my plan for the next couple of days, looking to see what I could rearrange.  I thought I might make the best of it by heading directly to Ramsey Canyon Preserve which was not very far away.  I swung the car around and left the Fort behind, reaching the canyon in mid morning. 

Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher at Fort Huachuca
The road into the canyon was productive.  Among other species, I saw a gorgeous Swainson's Hawk, but I really hit pay dirt when I reached the Preserve.  Owned by the Nature Conservancy, Ramsey Canyon Preserve is a gorgeous park.  There are some places in this world where I have instantly felt at peace with myself and my surroundings.  I had felt that way 14 months earlier at the Eagle River Nature Center in Alaska.  Now I felt it again.  At first I sat in the shade by a babbling stream, listening to its soothing sounds while watching a couple of hummingbird feeders.  I was treated to the sight of Magnificent, Black-chinned and Violet-crowned Hummingbirds zipping by my head to feed just a few yards away.

Then I got the urge to walk, so I started up the trail.  I saw juvenile American Robins feeding on some kind of blue fruit.  They looked like the blueberries I'm used to seeing at home, but the bushes were very different.  So too were the robins.  In Florida, we never see juvenile American Robins with their spotted breasts, looking like some related but separate species from their adult parents.  Further up the trail I saw a bird that turned out to be a male Summer Tanager, not the Hepatic I was hoping for.  All of my Hepatic Tanager pictures from the day before turned out to be poorly lit and out of focus.  I wondered if I'd get another chance at that species.

The creek at Ramsey Canyon Preserve
About that time I passed a small cabin built by John James in 1902.  I love looking at old homes, barns and sheds and wondering about the stories that went with them, about the hopes and dreams of the people who built them.  Here I was able to read the park brochure and fill in one of those stories.  I felt fortunate that such a place is still preserved as a tribute to those who settled the area against some pretty daunting odds.

Next I found a Bridled Titmouse and a Mountain Chickadee.  Then an Arizona Woodpecker announced his presence while rapping on a snag above the trail.  Ultimately, I had to make a decision.  Once the first part of the trail ended, the next section takes a hard left and begins an even harder climb up the mountain.  I felt energetic, so I started up.  In due course, my efforts were rewarded.  I found a Black-throated Gray Warbler and a Black-headed Grosbeak.  Higher still there were a Red-faced Warbler and a Painted Redstart.  Then I heard an Elegant Trogon, this one a male that flew from one thicket to another, eluding me at every spot.  Soon I passed a sign that told me I was leaving the Preserve and entering the Coronado National Forest.  Up here there were benches every hundred yards or so, and I had to sit frequently to catch my breath in the thin air.  Eventually, I reached a kind of lookout that offered an extraordinary view - one that my camera couldn't possibly do justice.  I sat for a while looking out over a deep valley to the cliff sides of another mountain,  At one point some type of hawk flew beneath me!  After a while, I decided to heed the approaching storm clouds, listen to my body (and my asthma!) and not climb the rest of the way.  Reluctantly, I turned back down the mountain and ended up in the parking lot just as a Hepatic Tanager was strolling past the car,  My lucky day!

Broad-tailed Hummingbird
There was a storm that night, but the next morning was ideal for birding.  The closure of Garden Canyon and the resulting trip to Ramsey Canyon on Friday meant that I had more time to spend on Saturday in another of my target areas - Miller Canyon.  I saw a few good birds on the way up, most notably a fabulous male Western Tanager, but nothing prepared me for the birding feast I found at Beatty's Guest Ranch.  Tom Beatty was there to greet the group of birders who were all arriving at the same time as I.  I later learned they were from the birding festival over in Tucson.  Mr. Beatty told me their leader was John Dunn and he added, "The man knows his hummingbirds,  You'd do well to listen to what he has to say."  I did.

I will talk about the birds at Beatty's feeders in the concluding blog in this series and include a lot of photos.  But I would be remiss if I didn't try to give you a sense of what it was like to be there.  I expected to be standing on the edge of a yard looking at a couple of feeders and hoping for a few hummingbirds.  I made the trek up the hill and turned a corner to find an aluminum grandstand under a canopy facing somewhere between 15 and 20 feeders.  And there before my eyes had to be at least 50 hummingbirds, madly scrambling from feeder to tree to feeder to bush and back again.  They fed, defended feeders, chased and were chased by other hummers.  Over and again, I had to duck to avoid birds that were chasing each other in and out of the crowd of birders, apparently oblivious to our presence.  It was wonderful in every sense of that word.  I sat there for hours, soaking up sights that will stay with me as long as I live.  The feeders were numbered from 0 to 9 and the rest had letters.  There was a constant stream of whispers from the birders:  "Broad-tailed on 2!" [Lifer!] "White-eared at 8!" [Lifer!] "Allen's at B!"  For a long time, Mr. Dunn stood behind the group coaching us on what to look for. I counted nine different species that morning, but in truth I wasn't keeping really good notes.  I was too engrossed to stop watching and write things down.

White-eared Hummingbird
Finally I tore myself away from the hummingbirds and walked down to the parking area.  I arrived just as some kind of flycatcher darted over the cars and into the trees.  I remembered that a birding guide back in Portal had told me that he had found a Greater Pewee in this same spot.  I hustled after it and was rewarded with both hearing and seeing the bird, another addition to the life list.  Farther down the road there was a parking area with a small restroom.  I pulled in and birded along the edges.  I found a Bushtit on the west end of the lot and saw a large pigeon on a wire to the east.  I looked at the pigeon for a couple of minutes, trying to make sure of what I was seeing.  It was big, elongated, had a white swatch across the back of its neck and yellow legs - a Band-tailed Pigeon.  It was the only one I saw on the trip.

The rest of the day was comprised of two sessions at Mary Jo Ballator's Ash Canyon B&B sandwiched around dinner at The Golden Corral (yep, cheap and lots of food).  The late afternoon session produced Acorn, Downy and Gila Woodpeckers, a Scott's Oriole,  a Bewick's Wren and dozens of House Finches and White-winged Doves.  There were also a good number of hummingbirds including what Ms. Ballator called a "Costifer", or a Costa's X Lucifer hybrid.  However, my target bird, a real Lucifer Hummingbird, was a no show.  So I returned that evening to find a small group of birders hoping to see the same bird.  We were fortunate enough to be joined by Ms. Ballator during our vigil.  Then all at once there were two Lucifer's.  It was my sixth lifer of the day, and my 47th of the trip!  As I was driving away, I was treated to a terrific look at a Gray Hawk, a great ending to a great day.

Lucifer Hummingbird
Immature American Robin

Broad-billed Hummingbird

The John James Cabin in Ramsey Canyon built in 1902.

Hepatic Tanager

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Part 3: The Chiricahuas

A Cassin's Sparrow Watching Me from a Distance.
The Chiricahuas and Portal were everything I hoped they would be - birdy, beautiful, and a total escape from the rest of the world.  I spent three nights there and could have spent three weeks without getting bored.

I ended my last blog by saying that Stateline Road was birdless as far as I could tell, but I was mistaken.  Just as I gave up on birding that area, a Cassin's Sparrow sang from the Arizona side of the road.  I hopped out of the car and began to scan the top of the bushes.  Nothing.  Then the song came from the New Mexico side.  I spun around and scanned.  Nothing.  Then it sounded from behind me again, and this time I saw it - Cassin's Sparrow!  Then the little guy flew to the New Mexico side making him the first Chiricahua bird and the last New Mexico bird of the day.  With a fist pump, I turned toward Portal.

 Upon arriving I had no time to take in the cliffs above the town or the charm of the Portal Store, Cafe & Lodge.  Instead, I was distracted by birds!  Across the street from the store was a small lot with some brush and a bit of gravel - not much more - but there was a Curve-billed Thrasher and a Cactus Wren.  A Western Kingbird and White-winged Doves sat on the wires above them.  Acorn and Downy Woodpeckers flew across the street to the feeders on the Lodge property where Lesser Goldfinches were battling brightly colored House Finches for the perches.  A Cassin's Kingbird flew in calling loudly. And I was still in the parking lot!  After a bit, I went into the store, checked in, and got my room key.  I went to the room and there above the door was a Barn Swallow's nest.  At first she flew off every time I approached, but after a while she grew used to me and never again disturbed herself over my presence.

Momma Barn Swallow - She Learned to Trust Me.
The Portal Lodge was wonderful.  We're not talking about a luxury resort here.  The room was small, there was no phone and no television, and the only chair was at a very small table nudged into a corner.  But the bed was comfortable, the pillow perfect for me, the air conditioner worked, and everything else was quiet.  In short, the room was perfect as far as I was concerned.  Even better, the food in the cafe was excellent and the beer very cold.  Does it get any better?

My goal on the first day was to work my way up to the picnic area at the end of the South Fork of Cave Creek where according to the books I might find an Elegant Trogon.  On the way up, I stopped frequently at pullouts and campgrounds.  I was rewarded with Western Scrub-Jay, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Red-faced Warbler, Painted Redstart, Western Tanager, Broad-billed Hummingbird, Blue Grosbeak and Bridled Titmouse.  But at South Fork there was nothing, and especially not an Elegant Trogon.  Dang.

The Cliffs above Portal

Yellow-eyed Junco
However, there was a storm brewing, so I wolfed down some lunch while sitting in the car, then set out to explore other parts of the area.  This time I started up the north side but was soon blocked by a tree across the road that led to Barfoot and Rustler Parks.  So instead, I pulled into the Southwestern Research Station (SWRS).  I was there by sheer luck and happenstance, and I fell in love with the place almost immediately.  There were so many birds! Western Wood-Pewees darted around while Cassin's Kingbirds perched on wires and posts looking for a treat to fly by.  In the grass there was a Lark Sparrow and a couple of Yellow-eyed Juncos.  Western Scrub-Jays scrambled around the parking lot where a lone Hermit Thrush sat in a tree at the far end.

Then an odd thing happened.  It started when I needed to use a restroom.  The SWRS store was closed and I didn't know there were restrooms just around the corner.  However, I recalled that there was a restroom back at South Fork.  I hopped back in the car, drove back to the fork, made the u-turn and quickly found myself back in the South Fork parking lot.  I started toward the restroom when I heard a voice to my left say, "Elegant Trogon!"  I made a sharp turn and headed into the trees where I found another birder who told me he had just heard an Elegant Trogon in the trees ahead of us.  I started searching but then he called, "This way.  It flew over there."  I still hadn't seen anything, but I bustled over to where he was pointing.  And there she was, one of the birds I really, really wanted on this trip.  It wasn't the brightly colored male, but still I think you can agree she is a lovely bird!

Elegant Trogon
It was a second lucky stroke - I had given up on South Fork for the day and yet there I was again and I was looking at a Trogon.  When I got back to the SWRS, almost the first thing I saw was the restrooms.  How had I missed them?  But if I had seen them, I would have missed the Trogon.  Someone was looking out for me!

I spent a good chunk of the rest of that day sitting at the Station's hummingbird feeders.  I watched as Magnificent, Blue-throated, Black-chinned and Allen's Hummingbirds alternately fed or chased each other around the yard.  Then I returned to the Lodge for a fantastic dinner of a beef and green chili burrito with refried beans and a bottle of Dos Equis, all topped off by a deep dish apple cobbler and ice cream.  I staggered out of there into the dieing light intending to walk off the meal.  I was rewarded with a Hooded Oriole, lifer #33 for the trip.

The second day also great.  It started at Dave Jasper's yard watching his feeders as dozens of birds visited for their morning meal.  I was also fortunate that Mr. Jasper joined us a for a bit and chatted away like we were old friends.  I had never met him, of course, but it took only a moment to feel comfortable around him.  Clearly, he is a man who loves his birds and loves sharing them with the many people who come to see them.  I counted about 20 species of birds while I sat there.  Among them were Gambel's Quail, Black-throated Sparrow, Pyrrhuloxia, Black-headed Grosbeak, Lark Sparrow, Curve-billed Thrasher and Canyon Towhee.  Also Black-chinned, Blue-throated, Allen's, Anna's and Broad-billed Hummngbirds visited the feeders and agave plants around me.  And in the thickets along the path a Verdin showed itself long enough to earn a few admiring comments.

The View from near Onion Saddle on the Road to Barfoot and Rustler Parks

That afternoon I braved the roads up to Barfoot and Rustler Parks.  Barfoot was a pretty spot marked by towering pines and a few decent trails.   However, at first I saw no birds.  Eventually I happened into a small mixed flock on a pullout just above the Barfoot parking lot.  In a matter of ten minutes I picked up three lifers: Olive Warbler, Grace's Warbler and Mexican Chickadee.  On the other hand, Rustler Park was somewhat of a disappointment.  I arrived to the smell of old fire and the sound of a logger's saw.  There had been a burn in the area and the forest service was removing trees.  Much of the park was closed to the public and there were no birds in the area that I could see.  I left there for the Herb Martyr Campground, but again I saw only one bird - a "Red-shafted" Northern Flicker.  So I went back down the road the the Research Station where I was surrounded by birds again.  This time a Say's Phoebe joined the other kingbirds, pewees, juncos, jays, robins and hummingbirds.  It was delightful!  I ended that day back at Jasper's place where I saw my first Spotted Towhee of the trip and my second Plain-capped Starthroat.

A Canyon Towhee, Not a Crissal Thrasher
My final day in the Chiricahuas started with a futile search for a Crissal Thrasher.  There were plenty of other birders along the road, and one group got a quick look at a vocalizing Crissal's, but I dipped.  That's fine, I thought, I'll just have to come back some day!  I left Portal and set out to explore one of those "under-birded" areas you read about in the guidebooks.  I turned south and west, stopping briefly at the Geronimo memorial marking the spot where the Indian Wars came to an end.  Then I turned north on Tex Canyon Road with the hope of exploring the western side of the mountains.  The first bird I saw was a Horned Lark on a fence along a pasture.  It was a good sign.

My path was not the one I intended.  Somewhere I zigged when I should have zagged, but the outcome was a good one.  I took Tex Canyon Road north, joined E. Rucker Canyon Road moving west, and somehow ended up on Leslie Canyon Road going south again.  To tell you the truth, I just didn't care.  It was such a breathtakingly beautiful drive.  There were towering rocky canyon walls, pastures sprinkled with wildflowers, and washes lined with trees.  There was rain falling off to the west in long tendrils reaching from the clouds to the ground below.  It was wonderful, and I loved it.

A Greater Roadrunner on Stateline Road
At one wash I stopped and birded up and down the creek bed.  I got glimpses at a Bell's Vireo and a Summer Tanager, but a few other birds  escaped me.  Near another wash, a Common Black Hawk (life bird #37 for the trip) flew up from a low mesquite and flew off in search of a meal.  Later I found an area that really tempted me into stopping.  It just looked like it should have birds.  It turned out to be a good call.  I got my life Hepatic Tanager and Black-throated Gray Warbler within a few feet of the car.  There was also a Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher and a couple of Rufous-crowned Sparrows.  A Rufous Hummingbird visited a nearby agave while a Brown-crested Flycatcher patrolled one of the fields.

Oh yeah, I also lost a staring contest with a cow.  She objected to my presence on her road.  She stood in front of the car and refused to budge.  I came to a stop, just a few feet away.  Surely my big, black, and loud Expedition would be frightening enough?  But no.  In the end, I had to go onto the shoulder to get around.

Altogether, I had ten life birds and a bundle of life memories in the Chiricahuas.  Eventually I found my way out of the mountains and I turned toward the Huachucas.  I didn't see how they could top what I had just left - but I had a lot to learn.

A Brightly Colored House Finch
The Winner and Still Champion!

Black-throated Gray Warbler

Horned Lark

I Believe This Is a Piece of Leslie Canyon

Storms in the Distance

Monday, August 11, 2014

Part 2: Silver City, NM, and the Road to Portal

The drive into New Mexico from Arizona was not for the faint of heart.  True, for the most part the greatest danger along I-10 was slipping into a hypnotic state from the sameness of the desert landscape.  But there were enough changes along the way - mountains rising from the desert floor, rock formations that looked impossibly tenuous but had stood for thousands of years - that I easily maintained concentration.  The real trouble came from that odd-looking curtain drawn across the terrain in the distance.  I had seen something like it once before, but where?  It wasn't a rain storm.  It certainly wasn't snow or ice.  Then a photo from an old National Geographic leaped to mind bringing one word with it: Sandstorm.  Soon the digital signs along the highway began blinking out a warning.  "Dust Storm Ahead.  Proceed with Caution."  Heck, it didn't say to stop and go back, so I went on.

Red-faced Warbler
As I recall, the storm slammed into me as I entered Texas Canyon.  A hot, ferocious wind staggered the Ford Expedition I had rented.  Quickly I regained control and held it on course, continuing eastward at a markedly slower pace.  Tumbleweed and other debris dashed across the road, but always ahead of or behind me, never right into me.  Smaller vehicles gathered on the road's edge, but the larger trucks kept going, and I stayed with them, the lessened visibility made less problematic by their glowing tail lights.  Then the air rippled with thunder and lightning.  I thought, "What fresh hell is this?"  But it turned out to be a good thing.  The rain cleaned the air and dampened the dust enough to keep it from blowing quite as much.  Visibility improved considerably, and then I was out the other side.  The curtain was in my rear view mirror, and I was clear of the storm.  And as a sign of good things to come, just as I crossed into New Mexico, a Lesser Nighthawk flew across my path, kept with me for a few marvelous seconds, and then disappeared to the north.  Welcome to the Land of Enchantment.

"Red-backed" Dark-eyed Junco
When I retired in 2012 after 41 years as a teacher, one of my goals was to try to spend some time birding in all 50 states.  Across the southern US border, I had birded at least a little in every state from Florida to California except New Mexico.  I planned to fix that on this trip.  I spent the night in Lordsburg, got up early the next morning, drove to Silver City and then took Route 15 toward Pinos Altos and the Cherry Creek and McMillan campgrounds, two spots mentioned on the New Mexico Birding Trail website.  They proved to be both beautiful and birdy.  At Cherry Creek, I walked across the rocks of a dried stream bed and stood peering up toward the towering hills and pines overhead.  Then I heard a warbler-like sound just above me.  I looked up and right into the gorgeous sight of a Red-faced Warbler (above, left).  I think I actually did a little dance of triumph right there in the picnic area.  Back in the parking lot I saw movement in the trees that bordered the highway.  There posing nicely was a "Red-backed" Junco, my third subspecies of the Dark-eyed Junco in the past year or so.

Painted Redstart

I left Cherry Creek intending to drive immediately to McMillan, but didn't get very far.  After just 50 feet or so, I noticed a lot of activity on both sides of the road.  I pulled off to the side, got out, and was surrounded by at least a half-dozen more Red-faced Warblers.  They seemed to be everywhere!  Joining them was a mixed flock including Pygmy and White-breasted Nuthatches, an Arizona Woodpecker, Mountain and Black-capped Chickadees, and another bird that kept darting from view just as I put my binoculars on it.  Then I got a brief but complete view - a Painted Redstart!  I fumbled for my camera and snapped away, getting a series of photos of lots of sticks and a part of a bird.  My best effort is here, on the left and there is another shot below.  I stayed with that flock for quite a while, enjoying their frenzied movement and playful chasing.  It wasn't easy tearing myself away from that spot, but eventually I headed north to the McMillan Campground.

Rocks towering over Cherry Creek Campground
This place was gorgeous!  I felt like I could camp there for days without ever tiring of its beauty, its peacefulness, its clean-smelling, invigorating air.  However, at first there were no birds to be found.  I searched and pished until I was tired and dry-mouthed.  Then I heard a peculiar song of three notes separated by short pauses.  Not for the last time on this trip, I was glad that I had spent some time listening to bird calls in preparation for this trip.  I pulled out my iPod and played the song once or twice to confirm my hopes ... a Cordilleran Flycatcher.  I'd like to say I skillfully tracked it, but the truth is it landed right above my head buried.  Unfortunately, the photos I snapped of the bird proved to be useless. 

The Cordilleran seemed to bring other birds with it.  Here was an American Robin collecting a tasty morsel for breakfast.  There was a House Wren working its way along yet another dry stream bed.  And over there was, well, what is that?  I scurried over to take a better look.  It was a Yellow-eyed Junco, a life bird, my fourth of the day.

I knew I had a long drive ahead of me.  I had to reach Portal, Arizona, where I was to spend the next three nights, so once I again I had to drag myself from a spot I felt reluctant to leave.  I drove south heading toward Silver City, but took a wrong turn.  I found myself on one of the more memorable streets of this or any other trip I've taken.  I was on Main Street of old Pinos Altos.  I wished my camera weren't on the floor behind me and that I had more time to spend.  I passed the old Opera House, the Buckhorn Saloon, and what was once a fortress during the Indian wars.  I read that the town survived a series of attacks by Apaches to produce over $8,000,000 worth of gold, silver and gemstones.  I was fascinated, but in a time crunch, so I kept driving.

I restocked my supplies in Silver City, drove south to Lordsburg and west to Exit 5, then turned south on 80 toward Portal.  Along the way I came to realize that the desert has a beauty all its own, a beauty that may be different from my own frame of reference, but was breath-taking nonetheless.  Some of the photos taken along the way are at the bottom of this blog.  I wish they could do justice to the truth.

I stopped along the way to search for birds a few times, but found only a Red-tailed Hawk and a Black-throated Sparrow.  In Rodeo, a Gambel's Quail was perched high in a tree bereft of its leaves.  Gin Road was reputed to have Cassin's Sparrows, but I saw none.  Stateline Road was also birdless as far as I could tell, so I turned west and headed for Portal and three fabulous days of birding in the Chiricahua Mountains.

Red-faced Warbler

Painted Redstart Trying to Hide

American Robin with Breakfast

The Desert in New Mexico

The New Mexico Desert

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Birding in Arizona and New Mexico: Phoenix to Madera Canyon

A View of Elephant Rock from Madera Canyon

Rosy-faced Lovebird
I had been told about the heat in Arizona: it may be hot, but the wall of heat that greeted me as I left the airport was downright oppressive.  It was 103 and climbing, heading toward 110 or so that afternoon.  And I couldn't escape to the mountains just yet.  My first target bird was here in Phoenix at Encanto Park, so I would have to deal with the heat for a few hours at least.

A week earlier, Alachua County birder and world traveler Dotty Robbins had mentioned to me that the Rosy-faced Lovebird was now an ABA countable species and told me where to find it.  I put the park address into my Garmin (That thing is SO valuable on a birding trip!), attached it to my rental Ford Expedition, and drove to the park.  In the parking lot, I heard the birds before I got out of the car.  I had my first lifer of the trip within seconds, and while I watched it, a Gila Woodpecker flew to a nearby palm tree - another life bird.  This was happening fast!  I had to root through my luggage to grab my binoculars, my camera, and a hat (Can't let that bald spot burn on Day 1!).  I hoped that the rest of the trip would be as successful.

I drove to a Walmart in Mesa, bought some lunch supplies, a case of water, a couple of bags of ice and a large styrofoam cooler. I piled everything into the car, had some lunch and turned south on AZ 177.  I had read that it might be possible to find a Streak-backed Oriole near a wash in Dudleyville.  I didn't.  But while I missed one possible lifer, I found four others.  I saw my first Pyrrhuloxia on the road to town, a Verdin and a Black-tailed Gnatcatcher in the bushes along Dudleyville Road., and a Phainopepla on San Pedro Road.  Then there was a flycatcher that puzzled me.  I tried my best to figure it out, but had to let it go.  Other birds around Dudleyville were a Yellow-breasted Chat, a Hutton's Vireo and a Black Phoebe.  Overall, it was very birdy!

Black-throated Sparrow
In fact, it was even birdier than my next destination.  I drove 12 miles into Aravaipa Canyon and found almost nothing.  There was a Gambel's Quail, my seventh lifer of the day, but little else.  Would all of the canyons be this disappointing?

No.  After a night in Green Valley, I headed into Madera Canyon and one of the best birding experiences of my life.  At Florida Wash, a Black-throated Sparrow sung from an eye-level perch affording me a long, clear look.  Meanwhile, a Bell's Vireo constantly scolded anyone who came near.  Eventually, I saw it settle into a nest, so I backed away.  A Zone-tailed Hawk soared above the canyon, and then I saw a flash of color fly across the road and into a heavy thicket.  I stared between the branches and saw some blue.  Then I saw a bit of red.  Eventually, the little beauty flew up for just a moment.  It was a gorgeous Varied Bunting - my 500th ABA bird! 

Varied Bunting, ABA #500
A bit farther south I pulled into the Proctor Road parking lot.  This is a really beautiful area.  Towering agaves surrounded the information kiosk and restrooms.  Hummingbirds darted in and out of their flowers, eluding my feeble hummer ID skills, but then a Magnificent Hummingbird perched up long enough for me to be satisfied that I knew what I was seeing.  An Arizona Woodpecker flew into a tree just a few feet away, and some patience afforded me a great look at it.  The adjacent trail was also terrific.  Plenty of shade and lots of birds make for a great walk.  A Canyon Towhee darted around the ground in one area while a Scott's Oriole sang from a tree top in another.  Lesser Goldfinches chased their mid-day snacks through the leaves, and a Western Tanager posed like a a supermodel on an exposed branch.  A Plumbeous Vireo displayed its spectacles from a juniper tree.

Next I explored the Madera Picnic Area.  Noisy Mexican Jays dashed through the trees, clambering as they searched the tall grass for food.  Equally noisy Acorn Woodpeckers seemed to be competing with the Jays for the loudest species award.  A Bridled Titmouse showed up, and I heard but couldn't find a Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher.  I searched for some time to no avail.  Darn, that was a bird I really wanted!

Broad-billed Hummingbird
The Santa Rita Lodge is just a little farther along Whitehouse Canyon Road.  It's a fantastic spot for birders.  I bought a cold drink and a Klondike bar, and sat outside to watch the feeders do their magic.  First I saw Black-chinned, Blue-throated and Broad-billed Hummingbirds.  I had seen both species in the winter in Florida, so I was not prepared for how truly gorgeous they were.  Iridescent colors sparkled in the sun.  This is why hummingbirds are so addictive - and we get so few of them in the east.  Meanwhile, a Black-headed Grosbeak joined a flock of House Finches at one of the feeders.  Lesser Goldfinches swarmed all over another feeder and Wild Turkeys grazed below them. And then there was a stir among the birders.  There on a feeder right in front of us was a Plain-capped Starthroat, a fairly rare visitor to the US from Mexico and a tremendous bird to add to my life list.  I never did get a usable photo of it; I was too engrossed in watching it.  Still, it was a stellar moment, on a par with that ABA #500 milestone.

Rufous-crowned Sparrow
In the Bog Spring parking lot, I ate a ham and cheese sandwich with a bottle of cold water while enjoying the car's air conditioning.  This had already been a spectacular day, but I knew I had missed some species I had hoped to see.  I really wanted that flycatcher I had missed, so I walked across the road to the Madera Picnic Area.  Almost immediately I was surrounded by those raucous Mexican Jays, acting like teenagers on a high-spirited adventure.  One stopped long enough for me to get the picture below.  A Canyon Wren played along the dry bed of a small stream.  Finally, the Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher perched overhead long enough for me to get a picture.  It isn't the best photo (see below), but it's good enough to be diagnostic.  Then another flycatcher caused a stir - a Dusky-capped was hunkered down among the leaves of a taller tree.  I stared into the foliage long enough to get a decent view, but never got an acceptable photo. 

Farther down the canyon, I stopped near Florida Wash again.  This time the prize was a Rufous-crowned Sparrow, sitting high and singing well into the afternoon.  This was my 18th lifer of the day, and it capped off an extraordinary birding day.  Actually, the day's adventure wasn't quite complete, but I'll save that harrowing story for my next blog regarding my time in a small slice of New Mexico.

Another View of a Broad-billed Hummingbird

Mexican Jay

Arizona Woodpecker

Acorn Woodpecker

Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher