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The Dream of a Lifetime: Birding in Southern Arizona - Part 2

posted by Kenny Frisch at
on Friday, February 15, 2013 

Friday morning I woke up at sunrise, excited for the possibilities that the day could present.  There had been some great birds seen in Patagonia Lake State Park the past few weeks like Black-capped Gnatcatcher, Elegant Trogon and Ruddy Ground-Doves and one could find additional rarities as well.   Another bonus would be getting to spend the day with my younger brother Jeff who had gotten permission to have the day off from school to come visit me.  He had driven down from Prescott, Arizona Thursday night and was supposed to meet us but couldn't find the road to ultimately turn onto to get to where we were sleeping, so we would meet up this morning.  He is a big fan of nature and has been getting into birds lately, even accompanying me on birding trips to Maine, Massachusetts and Michigan.  John and I got our car packed and made the short drive to Patagonia Lake State Park.

I didn't mind waking up to this scenic view

We found my brother at the Patagonia Lake Visitor Center.  Amazingly the first birds we saw at the visitor center were a lifer for me; two Ruddy Ground-Doves that had been hanging out there for the past few months.  They were with a pair of Inca Doves, but the Common Ground-Doves that were supposed to be at there were not to be found.  I am pretty sure that I am the only person with Ruddy Ground-Dove on their life list and not Common Ground-Dove.  Also at the visitor center was a nice male Anna's Hummingbird that even "sang" for us while we were there.

It's nice to get lifer Ruddy Ground-Doves first thing in the morning

At the visitor center, we ran into a man from Maine who was birding the winter across the southern US and living out of his car while doing so.  Needless to say I was very jealous of him, but even more so when he told me that he had a roosting Western Screech-Owl and an Elegant Trogon the day before.  He kindly led us to the owl and gave us directions to the spot where the trogon was being seen.  I was very excited at this point since Elegant Trogon was the bird I had wanted to see the most down in Arizona.

I can never say no to seeing a roosting Western Screech-Owl

We continued on , seeing many nice birds like Bridled Titmice, Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Swamp Sparrows, and Northern Cardinals and eventually made it to the spot where the trogon had been seen the day earlier.  We started walking along Sonoita Creek, being careful not to bother any of the cows that ranged freely in this part of the park.  After a few minutes, we heard a single "Co-ah" call behind us and we all stopped in our tracks.  We had just heard the trogon!  We backtracked to around the area where the call had come from but no trogon.  I figured the hard part was behind us since we had heard the trogon and knew it was around.  I was wrong.  We spent the next hour searching for the bird, even splitting up to cover more ground.  I feel like I now know that section of Patagonia Lake State Park like the back of my hand but it was all for not; we never found the trogon.

 We got to see cows at Patagonia Lake, but no trogons

Later on, I thought how it was funny how I could be so excited to hear Whiskered Screech-Owls the night before despite not not getting to see them, but with the Elegant Trogon I was pretty upset to only hear it and not see it.  It all involves expectations of the birds you are trying to get.  I really wanted to see an Elegant Trogon, whereas I wanted to just hear Whiskered Screech-Owls.  I will now have a species to really target the next time I go down to Southern Arizona.  OK, I'll stop whining now and show you some more pictures of the rest of our time in Patagonia Lake State Park.

Beautiful Patagonia Lake in the morning

A cooperative Ash-throated Flycatcher was a nice find

A panorama of Patagonia Lake State Park area with the park on the right side

After Patagonia Lake State Park, we headed to another southeastern Arizona hotspot: the Patagonia Roadside Rest Area.  It may not seem like much, just a picnic table and some grass and trees, but it has been the site for several US 1st records including Black-capped Gnatcatcher and Yellow Grosbeak.  The highlights here including another male Hepatic Tanager, a lifer for my brother and a Hutton's Vireo.  I am sure I saw more of these vireos while down there, but their close appearance to Ruby-crowned Kinglets (perhaps the most common bird down there) probably left them overlooked.

Patagonia Roadside Rest Area, an unassuming hotspot

From there we continued down Highway 82 to the town of Patagonia and quite possibly the most famous yard in the United States, the Paton's.  For dozens of years, they have allowed visitors to view their feeders and yard, even erecting a pavilion with seats for shade.  There have also been several US 1sts here and it is a rarity magnet.  However when we arrived there were no birds to be seen.  We were confused until a Sharp-shinned Hawk flushed from a tree.  We decided to come back and hoped that there would be more birds when we came back after our next stop, the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve.

 Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve and its riparian woodlands

The Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve is a Nature Conservancy property boasting a great riparian woodland with towering Fremont Cottonwood among other trees.  Unfortunately the birding was hit or miss, but at least we got a great hike out of it.  At the end of the Railroad Trail, we had both Say's and Black Phoebes in view at the same time.  I had been hearing Eastern Bluebirds calling while hiking the Railroad Trail and finally got to see them as we were hiking back along the Creek Trail.  The best bird we saw though was another eastern species that I had seen when I was back at home.

We came across a blackbird while on the Creek Trail and the most striking feature of the bird was a rusty triangle on its back and it didn't look quite right structurally for a Brewers.  I wasn't sure if Brewer's Blackbirds were able to show that color on their back but Rusty Blackbirds weren't supposed to be there.  When I finally got back to my Sibley's guide, I checked out the two species and realized we had seen actually seen a Rusty Blackbird!  Eastern birds again kept showing up for me.  The rest of the hike was good for species and I was excited to see Abert's Towhee and a pair of Black Vultures.

A pair of Black Vultures were a nice site at Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve

Arriving back to the car, we found a decent flock of sparrows feeding in some weeds.  Checking out the flock, we found it mostly to be mostly White-crowned Sparrows but mixed in were a few Lark Sparrows and a nice Rufous-winged Sparrow.

The second Rufous-winged Sparrow of the trip was a lifer for my brother

We headed back to the Paton's house and what a change it was from earlier.  The feeders were full of many birds and 26 species total  This is what I had been expecting this place to be like.  There was bird activity all around us.  Anna's Hummingbirds came to the various hummingbird feeders.  Gambel's Quail sat on the same feeder as a Lazuli Bunting and Pyrrhuloxia.  A Green-tailed and Abert's Towhee fed on the ground with a Lincoln's and White-crowned Sparrows.  A suet feeder attracted Gila Woodpeckers, Yellow-rumped Warblers and White-breasted Nuthatches.  There were Pine Siskins in the trees and a Curve-billed Thrasher gave its "whit-wheet" call nearby.  I don't think I put down my binoculars for the thirty minutes we were there.

 A pair of Gila Woodpeckers at the Paton's yard

 This Lincoln's Sparrow was just one of the six species of sparrows present

 Thanks to the Lazuli Bunting and White-winged and Mourning Doves for posing for me

 A Gambel's Quail fed close to us

On a related note, the Paton's home is for sale.  If I had the money, I would buy it just to have the best yard list in the United States.  This place was a gem.

From their we headed out to the San Rafael Grasslands.  The Lane guide told of a vista point there after driving out of Harshaw Canyon that "is one of the most satisfying visual experiences available to birders in all Southeastern Arizona".  I was skeptical about how great this view could really be, but when we drove out of the canyon, my breath was taken away.  The sweeping views were gorgeous.

 Two views of the San Rafael Grasslands

The San Rafael Grasslands were a treat to bird as well.  Raptors were well represented with multiple Northern Harriers and American Kestrels, a Red-tailed Hawk, a Merlin and even a Rough-legged Hawk which are considered rare in Southern Arizona.  Songbirds were also in abundance with many Vesper and Savannah Sparrows and the Lillian's subspecies of  Eastern Meadowlark.  With both Western and Eastern Meadowlarks in Southeastern Arizona, I got to work on the best ways to separate them.  I found the best way to tell them apart involved looking at their tails which is pretty easy to do as it always seems like meadowlarks are flying away from me.  Eastern Meadowlarks have extensive white in their tails, where as only the outer 2 or 3 tail feathers in Westerns are white.

Even with bad views, the extensive white in Eastern Meadowlark tails is obvious.

There were also some Pronghorn Antelope to complete the whole grasslands feel.  Despite missing two target species, Baird's Sparrow and Chestnut-collared Longspur, we had a great time soaking in the views and enjoying the birding.  

 The road through Harshaw Canyon

We took the road back through Harshaw Canyon to Patagonia to pick up my brother's car and had our final great birding moment of the day.  His car was parked in a tiny town park that has barely any trees.  Despite this we heard and found an Acorn Woodpecker on top of a light pole across the parking lot.  Then in a tree right next to our cars we had our second Hepatic Tanager of the day giving us much better views than the first one and a Red-naped Sapsucker was in the same tree.  Great birds are everywhere down there!  Even the last bird of the day was great sight.  As we were approaching a Border Patrol checkpoint, John and I saw a large bird perched on a 20 foot yucca stalk on our right.  As we got even with the bird we saw two big horns and the immense silhouette of a Great-Horned Owl.

Some of the Pronghorn Antelope we saw in the San Rafael Grasslands

 The Santa Rita mountains at sunset

I thought that was the end of my birding in Arizona, but I was wrong.  The ultimate frisbee tournament got cancelled due to rain (who would ever expect that?) and I was disappointed for about 5 seconds before I realized that 1) I'm in Arizona 2) Have all my birding equipment with me and 3) Have a rental car.  With about 8 hours to kill before heading to the airport, John and I went out birding joined by our friend Rich.  Getting online, I found that there was a Eurasian Wigeon hanging out at a nearby elementary school with some American Wigeon.  Fifteen minutes later we were viewing the bird and also had a few funny encounters with people including two kids who offered to catch the bird for me after I told them that I was looking at a rare duck from Eurasia and also running into a couple who we had originally seen in Florida Canyon on the first day we were down here.  What of the odds of running into them in the fifteen minutes we were viewing the duck?

This Eurasian Wigeon was memorable for the human encounters we had while viewing it

We headed out to the desert west of Phoenix famous for thrashers where last year I had both LeConte's and Bendire's Thrashers.  This year we weren't as lucky, seeing no thrashers but Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Black-throated Sparrow and Brewer's Sparrows were a nice find.  We tried to find a wetland driving back to Phoenix but despite not finding it still had good species like a Ferruginous Hawk and a Greater Roadrunner we watched catch a tarantula!

Tarantulas aren't safe with Roadrunners around

Our final destination is a personal favorite of mine, the Gilbert Water Ranch, which with its many ponds attracts birds of all kinds.  We ended up having 55 species with Anna's Hummingbirds being among the most common birds.  There was not many places there that we didn't hear Anna's singing or have one buzzing by us.  This is the also the only park I know of where Ring-necked Ducks will approach you begging for food.  It makes seeing the ring on their neck easier.

Ring-necked Ducks looking for a handout

We had 9 species of shorebirds there including Western Sandpiper, Wilson's Snipe and Long-billed Dowitchers.  Other species of note included a hunting Osprey, more Inca Doves, American Pipits, Green Herons, Abert's Towhees and Curve-billed Thrasher.  Here are some of additional pictures from there.

 A pair of Long-billed Dowitchers probing for food

 There were many Snowy Egrets at the Gilbert Water Ranch

 John picked out this Wilson's Snipe

 A cooperative Say's Phoebe

Shorebirds at the Gilbert Water Ranch

We headed to the airport where our flight would be delayed due to a blizzard in the Salt Lake area. Our flight that was supposed to get in at 8 pm ended up getting in at 11:45 pm. Despite this, my trip down to Southern Arizona for my 30th birthday was one of the most rewarding birding experiences of my life if not the very best.  I had fun birding with friends and family and exploring interesting areas of the United States different from anywhere else I have visited before.  I have figured out that with summer visit down to the area, I could add over 30 lifers which leads me only one question: 

How soon before I visit again?

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Blogger Oliver Hansen said...

The roadrunner pic is crazy!

February 15, 2013 at 9:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Kenny for the trip down memory lane. Glad to hear you added 30 lifers in such a short time! We lived in Tucson Arizona for three years and I added about 90 lifers to my list there in that time. It's a wonderful place!

Rachel LeBlanc

February 21, 2013 at 3:45 PM  
Blogger Kenny Frisch said...

Fortunately/ unfortunately I added only 11 lifers on this trip. I could possibly get an additional 30 lifers if I were to go down in the summer.

I'm glad you liked the post!

February 21, 2013 at 4:38 PM  

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