It was a wonderful week to be birding in southeast Arizona. The Plain-capped Starthroat showed up at the private residence in Green Valley after two months absence. This bird was the earliest on record and maybe the latest (except for a bird that wintered in Phoenix many years ago). I got invited to see it and was able to take a few friends. There are only two things better than seeing a Starthroat, seeing multiple Starthroats at the same time and seeing a Starthroat with friends. Louise and I took a mid-day hike up the Old Baldy Trail in Madera Canyon on Thursday 16th. Right next to the trail we found a flock of five Pine Siskins and two Cassin’s Finches. The Siskins are expected however they haven’t shown up in numbers yet. The Cassin’s Finches were somewhat expect being that flocks of this species have been seen in the Santa Catalina and Chiricahua Mountains. As we were hiking through one of the more sheltered stretches of the trail, I noticed some whitewash on the rocks in my path. Looking up (and closing my mouth) I see the butt & tail of a Mexican Spotted Owl. This is the same stretch of trail that I saw my first Madera Canyon Spotted Owl several years ago (30 Sept 2008). On Friday 17th I walked the Santa Cruz River both directions from Santa Gertrudis Lane. I walked along the river northbound (not the trail) for about a quarter of a mile, not hearing much of anything I turned around and headed south. About a hundred yards south of the lane I come across a large flock of Yellow-rumped “Audubon’s” Warblers and see another birder heading my way. The other birder was Keith Kamper and while we were sorting through the warbler flock, a small flock of Lawrence’s Goldfinches fly in. I thought I had heard the goldfinches early but dismissed them. Well they were real. We counted twenty-eight and I hope this means a good winter for the species. After Keith & I went our separate ways, I found a Painted Redstart (unusual for this elevation), an adult male Bullock’s Oriole, and while walking out several Cedar Waxwings are perched above the Pyracanthas. Late that evening while walking with Louise, we heard a Barn Owl. It is good to have three species of owls back in the neighborhood again!
Sunday 19th turned out to be a very interesting day, for birding in general and specifically year listing. Louise and I started the day with another Quetzal Quest Trek. The route this day was up the Carrie Nation Trail past the Carrie Nation Mine to the Agua Caliente Trail then east to Josephine Saddle and down the Old Baldy Trail. From a standpoint of birds, the most interesting observation was of thirty-six Cassin’s Finches in the drainage about a quarter of a mile above the Carrie Nation Mine. They were fun to watch, a quarter to a third of the flock would perch up high in a nearby dead snag while the rest would feed on currant berries (I think) and grass seeds. On the Agua Caliente Trail while I was scanning for Quetzals, Louise found a Red-breasted Nuthatch. There appears to be a minor influx of this species into southern Arizona this fall and this was the first I had seen in the Santa Rita Mountains. The hike down the Old Baldy Trail was uneventful though very nice. I lingered in the vicinity of the Spotted Owl roost I found a few days before, not occupied today. I found an eBird report of a family of Spotted Owls somewhere up here in August, interesting.
Louise and I returned home. As we were laying down for a post-hike nap, my phone catches up on receiving email it missed while in the mountains. I scan the list and see an email from Mark. Mark & Molly had seen an adult male Baltimore Oriole along the Santa Cruz River near Sweetwater Wetlands. I lean over, kiss Louise, jump out of bed, and head out. The directions stated that it might be quicker to go to Christopher Columbus Park to access the area. So I did. I also discovered that a Brown Thrasher had been seen at a nearby park along the Rillito River, now I had two birds to chase. I left the camera in the truck and walked through rain & mosquitos across the park to the Santa Cruz River. I found the marker that Mark had left and shooed mosquitos while looking & listening for the Baltimore Oriole. With the overcast clouds it was difficult birding. At around 5pm I decided to give the Brown Thrasher a try with the little daylight I had left. I start walking back towards the mesquite bosque at the north end of Columbus Park. I pished at some movements I saw in some willows at the northeast corner of the bosque and to my amazement the adult male Baltimore Oriole pops up for a brief obscured view and then disappears. I had visions of the movie The Big Year as I almost immediately began running to the next bird after getting a barely satisfying looks at the oriole. So be it, I’m doing a Big Year! I arrive at Rio Vista Natural Resource Park with little light. Though the clouds were breaking the sun had set by the time I arrived and it was getting dark. I found the rock & the bushes where Rich had seen the thrasher. I listened to every natural sound I could hear for any indication that the thrasher was about. Finally I hear the thrasher make a few calls, get close and see movement in the thick underbrush of a nearby mesquite. I am pishing, chirping, making whatever kind of noise I think will arouse the curiosity of a thrasher. Then a unleashed dog runs up, I must of aroused its curiosity, the Brown Thrasher flies from the thick cover providing acceptable views before it disappears near the Rillito River bed. It is getting dark and not worth chasing any more. I’m not sure if I should be grateful or cursing the leash less dog & its owner. I’m back in my truck in less than 90 second after seeing the thrasher and heading home. I really hope the rest of the additions to the year list are better than the two today. Though both of the birds were valuable contributions to my list, there is something unsettling about chasing and only getting brief glimpses at these birds.
The next morning, Monday 20th, I find myself driving to the San Rafael Valley trying to arrive before sunrise. I arrive just as the sun is peaking over the Huachuca Mountains to the east. A White-tailed Kite flies over heading out of the valley towards the Patagonia Mountains to the west. There are Eastern Meadowlarks everywhere and many are singing. I see several sparrow-like birds flushing from the road, both on the road and near the road. They are probably Savannah or Vesper Sparrow but unidentified because they are between me & the sun and I cannot see much more than blurs. I finally see one sparrow perched up on a fence wire. Amazingly it’s a Baird’s Sparrow. The first sparrow I can identify is the one I’m looking for. Where are the Grasshopper Sparrows? I get several pictures of the Baird’s Sparrow and proceed eastward. The Baird’s Sparrow was in the low area below the “Lone Tree” pond about a half mile from the west entrance to the valley. The road climbs a rise as you head east and begins to curve a bit. On the top of the rise I begin to see birds in the road, Horned Larks and Vesper Sparrows. Then one of them caught my eye, a Sprague’s Pipit. I get a few seconds of binocular views before it flushes, heading to the sky. Several minutes later I see another as it flushes and can identify it only by its call and the “heading towards the sky” flushing behavior. Two-of-three day-targets taken care of. I begin focusing on finding flocks, like longspurs. I end up hearing one Chestnut-collared Longspur, no flocks and no McCown’s. This valley is the headwaters of the Santa Cruz River. The northern-most river crossing was dry however a crossing further south about five miles had water flowing. The whole valley was quite beautiful this morning, as it is most mornings I visit. As I am heading back near where I first saw the Baird’s Sparrow, I see three sparrows perched on the fence. All three are Baird’s and all three it photographed. Possibly the best photographs I have of Baird’s Sparrows. I finally see a Grasshopper Sparrow and leave the valley.
What a fantastic week, four new year birds yields a total of 396 for 2014. And now according to the ABA, reintroduced California Condors are countable in Arizona-Yuck!