My title for this post is rather inaccurate in that very little happen with regards to my Arizona Big Year. This was an intense week of guiding. And while finding a new year bird was always somewhere in the back of my mind, my focus was on showing folks birds that they had not seen. Tuesday 22nd through Thursday 25th I was with Tom Gaines. Friday 26th through Monday 28th I was with a group of eight birding friends from the Seattle area. And I was back with Tom on Tuesday 29th.
Tom is from western Missouri and this was his first birding trip to southeast Arizona. We planned four days together with four more days for Tom to take in some more relaxed birding and to spent time with his wife. On Tuesday 22nd, we began birding in Green Valley and though our list was modest we found many of the desert specialty species including Harris’s Hawk, Gilded Flicker, Gila & Ladder-backed Woodpecker, and of course Gambel’s Quail. On our way up to Madera Canyon, we stopped at the Continental Wash and found Phainopepla & Rufous-winged Sparrow. I usually leave feeder watching for later in the day however there were a few species at the Santa Rita Lodge feeders that needed to be seen. The Plain-capped Starthroat was feeding on the porch feeder within ten minutes of us arriving and an Allen’s Hummingbird also continued at the feeder nearest the water feature. As a bonus, two Painted Redstarts came in to the water feature to bathe. We moved up to Madera Kubo to find the well-publicized Whiskered Screech-Owl roost empty. We watch the feeders and find two Magnificent Hummingbirds among the numerous Black-chinned & Broad-billed Hummingbirds. Above cabin three, a pair of Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers tends to their young apparently still in the nest cavity. As we are walking back past the owl roost, I see the adult Whiskered Screech-Owl perched up in the hole. So some time between 08:20 & 08:32, the little owl decided to come out into the light.
Fortunately Tom is a fly fisherman and has a good understanding of patience. We waited for more than an hour & half before the male trogon began calling to his female in a nest cavity. Several more minutes of waiting gave us looks at the female as she departed the cavity and close looks at the male as he flew in before disappearing into the hole. During our wait there was very little bird activity around the trogon’s nesting area. However, during the hike up and down we found many of the species one would expect this time of year including Yellow-eyed Junco, Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, Painted Redstarts, and an unexpected daytime calling Mexican Whip-poor-will. An early afternoon walk along the Proctor Road loop trail produced a family group of Black-capped Gnatcatchers. This species had not been reported from this hotspot since April though reports from nearby Florida Canyon have been frequent to down right numerous.
The agenda for Wednesday 23rd included us birding at California Gulch and around Patagonia. In route to “The Gulch”, we stop and pickup a few birds near where Ruby Road crosses Oro Blanco Wash. Several Botteri’s & Rufous-winged Sparrows were perched up and singing though the Cassin’s Sparrows remain inconspicuous. Bird vocalizations at the wash crossing was deafening with various flycatchers trying to call-over the always noisy Yellow-breasted Chats and Bell’s Vireos.
Upon reaching California Gulch and hiking in, it took us until reaching the third dry stream crossing before we heard our first Five-striped Sparrow. Though I know we were passing past several pairs of these sparrows, I do not use playback for this species while they are in their breeding season. Even though they were difficult at first we had excellent looks at one or two individuals and in all detected six birds before we left the gulch.
Over at the Patagonia Rest Stop, the Thick-billed Kingbirds were much more cooperative. Two of the fledglings were perched below eyelevel near the picnic table. We watched the parents feeding these two youngsters as well as guessed where the unseen siblings were. At the Paton’s Yard we enjoyed the comings & goings of the Violet-crowned Hummingbirds as well as the other species utilizing the feeders. A stop at the Rio Rico Pond on our journey home produced five Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks and a Tropical Kingbird. There were two more Whistling-Ducks and the over summering Ring-necked Duck at the Amado Pond.
Tom and I planned to hike up Florida Canyon for the Rufous-capped Warblers this morning, Thursday 24th. As an omen of a good day, two adult Gray Hawks were well seen before crossing the Santa Cruz River. It took us about 45 minutes to hike up Florida Canyon to the spot where our target had been hanging out lately. Within a few minutes of arriving one male Rufous-capped Warbler perches up high in a dead tree and singings just long enough for Tom to get a decent look though the distance was a bit far for a photograph. We waited around for a bit hoping that the warbler would return, perhaps closer. We then birded our way down the canyon and then headed over to Madera Canyon again. We stopped at Madera Kubo and saw the roosting Whiskered Screech-Owl and picked out a Violet-crowned Hummingbird (rare in Madera Canyon). Down at the Santa Rita Lodge, we saw one of the continuing Plain-capped Starthroats and unusual in the canyon were four Western Kingbirds.
The next four days (Friday 25th thru Monday 28th) of guiding actually began back in April when Joanne contacted me and asked if I would guide her, her two sisters, and five others for several days. I do not normally accept groups as clients however this request was different. The three sisters were familiar with birding in southeast Arizona, they already had a rough itinerary mapped out, they were referred to me by my dear friend Carl Haynie, and nearly as important the group as a whole was a group of friends that birded together frequently. After several rounds of email we agreed to a rough itinerary and four days of guiding.
We met at 05:00 Friday 25th morning at the Comfort Inn in Green Valley, loaded into two vehicles, and head up towards Florida Canyon. A quick stop in the mesquite-grasslands yielded a pair of Scaled Quail flying across the road, a few singing Botteri’s & a multitude of Black-throated Sparrows, a flyby Peregrine Falcon, & a flyover Swainson’s Hawk, and Blue Grosbeak. Florida Canyon, as usual, turned out to be a wonderful place to kick-start this groups southeast Arizona excursion. A large variety of local specialties were seen including four species of Passerina buntings. The entire group got good albeit challenging looks at two female/immature type Black-capped Gnatcatchers and comparison looks at Black-tailed Gnatcatchers. Two of the group turned back at the decision point below the dam and birded their way to the vehicles. The rest of us proceeded up the canyon and saw two Rufous-capped Warblers (a singing male & an apparent juvenile) and heard singing Montezuma Quail & Black-chinned Sparrow. While all those present got good satisfying looks at the two Rufous-capped Warblers, another male sang from further up the canyon. We birded our way back down the canyon and found two Black-necked Gartersnakes hunting one of the newly reformed pools. Upon rejoining the two that turned back earlier we headed off to Madera Canyon. While we waited for the Starthroat show, we enjoyed nice looks at numerous Broad-billed Hummingbirds in varied plumages, a molting female Arizona Woodpecker, and several of the expected species for the location. After a thirty-minute wait one of the Plain-capped Starthroats appeared briefly at the porch feeder next to the gift shop. And about ten minutes later it returned for a more lengthy stay. Not only did our group but also the ten to fifteen other birders waiting enjoy this bird. The final stop for the day was Madera Kubo and we were blessed that the roosting Whiskered Screech-Owl was visible in a Sycamore cavity across the road from the gift shop.
Our first stop early Saturday 26th morning was not for the birds so a singing Yellow-billed Cuckoo and two Tropical Kingbirds at Arivaca Cienega parking lot were unexpected treats. A planned stop in the grasslands near Oro Blanco Wash gave us excellent views of a courting pair of Cassin’s Sparrows about fifty feet off the road. The display included the male skylarking above the female and landing within inches of her and then….. Above the silted in dam along California Gulch Road (FR 217) we were surprised to find a Killdeer foraging out in the lush grassy area & mud puddle. Perhaps this species frequents Ruby Town Lake about half a mile away. Though we didn’t stop to admire the Killdeer, we did stop for a Greater Roadrunner perched up in a small tree and four fledged Great Horned Owls being harassed by Mexican Jays. Our hike down into the narrow portion of the gulch where the target species reside was very successful with eight Five-striped Sparrows heard and several were seen well by all. We also saw a family of ‘Desert’ Purple Martins perched together on an Ocotillo beside their Saguaro cavity home and had many Rufous-crowned Sparrows, one of which provided nice views while it preened after bathing in a small rock-puddle. From the non-avian standpoint a very large (at least 8 inches) Giant Black-headed Centipede (Scolopendra heros) was very interesting.
After leaving the gulch and having a difficult time getting through one stretch of California Gulch Road (FR 217) we headed east on Ruby Road toward Rio Rico. We stopped at the parking area for Sycamore Canyon for lunch and found a Thick-billed Kingbird sallying for bugs from high perches, Vermilion & Dusky-capped Flycatchers from lower perches, and heard a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. A rather warm walk around the Upper Thumb Rock parking area at Pena Blanca Lake produced excellent views of a Common Ground-Dove, a picnic table perched Brown-crested Flycatcher, and probably our best views of a singing Rufous-winged Sparrow. We were not able to find the Least Grebe that has become rather unreliable here, however we did see a Pied-billed Grebe, a Green Heron, and Mallards on the water.
A quick stop at the Rio Rico Pond yielded at least nine Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and four ‘Mexican’ Mallards. And our final stop of this day at the Amado WTP gave us another Black-bellied Whistling Duck (others were probably hidden in grass), three Neotropic Cormorants, a summering Ring-necked Duck, an Eared Grebe, and a single Lazuli Bunting.
On Sunday 27th we started in Green Valley and then made our way over to Miller Canyon by way of Patagonia. Our first stop of the day was the Roadside Rest Stop outside of Patagonia. Here we found four fledgling Thick-billed Kingbirds being fed by their parents. Three fledglings were perched inches from one another while the fourth was a couple of feet away – I wonder if there is some sort of sibling hierarchy being demonstrated. A stop at the Paton’s Yard is always on the agenda when birding around Patagonia. Two Violet-crowned Hummingbirds performed well and frequently. We got our best views to date of both Gila & Ladder-backed Woodpeckers and good looks at an Abert’s Towhee under the west feeders. As we were walking out towards our vehicles, a pair of Yellow-billed Cuckoos flew in giving us okay views before flying away. I even got a few poor photographs. Next we walked a few trails at the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve. Most impressive here was the number of Phainopeplas, I conservatively counted thirty-four. They were everywhere, in all plumage types possible, some showing more than one plumage type (in molt), and flying this way & that way. A perched Gray Hawk and a Gray Hawk carrying a small snake were nice distractions from the Phainopeplas.
Our next destination was Miller Canyon. We arrived mid-day and I stopped & talked to Tom Sr. to get the latest intel on the Spotted Owl family. We then began hiking, destination - Split Rock and beyond. As we passed the hummingbird feeding area, I mentioned to the group that if anyone feels they cannot make the hike, the feeder area is the place to be. One member of the group turned back below the washout and the second below the first crossing. I felt bad for the two that had to turn back but was taken by their unselfishness by not holding up the rest of the group. We were not the only party looking for the Spotted Owls this afternoon, another guide and a couple had arrived on the seen prior to us. While searching for the owls we found a wonderful Red-faced Warbler and a family of Greater Pewees. Thanks to the other guide we were able to get difficult looks at one ‘Mexican’ Spotted Owl, presumably the male since the young were not close by. As we are hiking back down the trail, the other guide comes running back up to tell us of a Black-tailed Rattlesnake in the trail. Once we get to the spot we find the snake off but very close to the trail. We watched this snake hunting through the leaf litter for several minutes. It did a slight rattle once but for the most part seemed unconcerned with our presence at a respectful distance. What a beautiful snake! We joined up with the rest of our party at the hummingbird viewing site, shared our stories, and then called it a day.
We had no difficulties entering Fort Huachuca early Monday 28th morning, preceding the “rush hour traffic” at the main gate. We find ourselves at the base of Huachuca Canyon taking advantage of the inhalation hazard facility before heading up the canyon where there are no such facilities. While we wait for one another, one of us finds an Olive-sided Flycatcher. Olive-sided Flycatchers are not usual for this group from Seattle, however for this time of year and location this is not an expected species. We proceed up the rough road to the 1.7-mile picnic area and almost immediately hear an Elegant Trogon calling. After many minutes of searching we find ourselves in the middle of a foraging family group. I lost track of what everyone was & wasn’t seeing, it was difficult to get a look at any of these birds. We were limited in our movements by a sweep hillside to the right, a deep gully to our left, and poison ivy everywhere. When the group of birds moved away from our position a bit, I got the group of humans to move over to the main trail. Now we could move a little more freely and I began hearing more trogons further up canyon. Eventually we caught up with a second family group and were fortunate in watching the adult male feed his daughter some tasty morsel. We got more incredible looks at Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, some good looks at the three Myiarchus species, and found nesting Hepatic Tanagers. Just below the dam about a mile above the picnic area, a vocal Buff-breasted Flycatcher showed off very nicely in the edge vegetation along the road. While the group was trying to get good looks at a Painted Redstart, one of the participants comments about the red on the redstart’s head. I respond “belly?”. She responds “no, head!”. I respond “where?”. She has just found the group’s second Red-faced Warbler and she happens to be one that missed this species yesterday in Miller Canyon. I had just experienced one of the big challenges and thrills of group-guiding. The challenge is to get everyone looking at the same bird, the “right” bird. And the thrill is when those that don’t get on the “right” bird find something else special & new!
After Huachuca Canyon we head back to the Comfort Inn to pickup coolers & food left there respecting the ban on such bear-attracting contraband in the canyons of Fort Huachuca. Our next stop is Ash Canyon B&B where we hope to see a Lucifer Hummingbird. We get half a Lucifer in the form of Costifer Hummingbird, the hybrid Lucifer x Costa’s Hummingbird. It is a spectacular bird but not very satisfying to the lists. After an hour & half we move along, heading up to Carr Canyon. Our time birding around the Reef Townsite Campground was abbreviated by thunder, lighting, and heavy rain. We did manage to find another Olive-sided Flycatcher, three juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawks, ‘Mexican’ Eastern Bluebirds, and finally Yellow-eyed Juncos. Somehow we had missed the juncos in upper Miller Canyon yesterday. As the rain chased us down the steep switch-backed road, a Greater Roadrunner does what its supposed to do, run down the road with us.
This was the end of four wonderful days with eight delightful folks.
My twelfth day in a row of guiding begins at 05:30 Tuesday 29th. As we did three times last week, Tom & I meet at the McDonald’s in Green Valley. I am not exactly sure what Tom & will be doing this day except birding. We did very well our three previous days together and Tom has gotten a few on his own while I was with the Seattle group. So I’ll wing it, pun intended. We head up towards Madera Canyon and arrive on the grasslands just as the sun clears the northern extension of the Santa Rita Mountains. For nearly an hour we search this patch of desert grassland habitat. We are rewarded with good albeit distant looks at skylarking Cassin’s Sparrows, numerous Botteri’s Sparrows singing and tending to presumed nests, a male Northern Harrier in molt flies by, and at least three unseen Scaled Quail calling from the grasses.
Next, I have us walk form the Whitehouse Picnic Area to the Madera Picnic Area. Shortly before reaching the north most bridge between the two picnic areas, I see a large hummingbird hawking insects near tree top level. This turns out to be a Plain-capped Starthroat, presumably one of the individuals frequenting the feeders at the Santa Rita Lodge a third of a mile away. A few minutes later I hear a vireo singing that is not one of our regulars. After a few seconds we see a Red-eyed Vireo. Incredibly this is my second Red-eyed Vireo in Arizona, the previous one being slightly more than a month ago in Florida Canyon. After attempting to get pictures & recordings of the vireo we continue our walk towards the Madera Picnic Area. Tom saw some mammal moving high up on the hillside and a few minutes later we both see a White-nosed Coati. It also sees us and attempts to hide behind a tree while we try to take photos. When we get back to birding, we find a continuing yet rare for the area Black-and-White Warbler, hear & see several Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers (the only area in Pima County where they can be found regularly), and hear a Montezuma Quail.Next we make a loop around the Chuparosa Inn by walking down the Nature Trail from the upper parking lot and return via the main road. It was a nice walk however we do not find anything too exciting. We do a similar walk around the Santa Rita Lodge. In addition to the Plain-capped Starthroat at the lodge feeders, we almost step on a male Montezuma Quail. The quail runs rather than flushing and gives us decent albeit mostly obscured views. But we got to see a Montezuma Quail! And this turned out to be a wonderful end to our day.
Again, no new year birds:-(. However it was a wonderful week of birding.