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Arizona Day 2- Trogons Trogons Everywhere

posted by Kenny Frisch at
on Monday, February 17, 2014 

As I was waking up at sunrise in the parking lot for the Florida Canyon trailhead, I was looking forward to some familiar birding.  Day 2 would represent the only day in which I would be traveling to places that I had visited the year before.  However all the locales were legendary birding hotspots where many North American first records have happened, that have unique Mexican species that only occur in southeastern Arizona and have the potential for other rarities.

Gorgeous Florida Canyon in the morning

My first stop on the day was scenic Florida Canyon where I luckily didn't have to go far from where I slept the night before.  My targets for the canyon were Elegant Trogon- a bird I had only heard last year but frustratingly never got to view, Rufous-capped Warblers which I had seen here a year before and Black-capped Gnatcatcher.  As I was getting ready to hike, another birder drove up.  We discussed possible birds we might find, where were were from (he was from Louisiana) and I headed up the trail ahead of him while he waited near a stream bed to see if any trogons would show up.

Walking up the trail I could hear birds everywhere but sometimes seeing them was difficult with the leaf litter and undergrowth blocking them.  I had a bird hiding on the other side of a yucca and I managed to finally get a look, the bird proved to be a Rufous-crowned Sparrow, one of many I would see in the canyon thanks to its rocky, grassy hillsides.  Many other sparrows enjoyed the same habitat including Rufous-winged and Black-chinned.

 Rufous-winged Sparrows are a Southeastern Arizona specialty

 They can also be quite skulky

Black-chinned Sparrows lack their black chin in winter

I continued on the trail  up to a small ridge overlooking the stream and started to scan the area when my eyes were drawn to a thick patch of branches and a large bird sitting in the middle of them.  I didn't even need to put my binoculars on the bird to know what it was- an Elegant Trogon!  This almost seemed too easy after the hour I had searched last year for one that had called.  I snapped a few pictures and went to get the birder from earlier and in another moment of luck, it turned out he was already heading up the trail.  I let him know what I found and we hastened to the ridge and the trogon was still hanging out.  It made a few passes for insects before disappearing into the foliage.  I rejoiced in my first ever trogon sighting.

My first ever seen Elegant Trogon- an immature

We excitedly headed up the trail and saw some other skulky birds including Curve-billed Thrasher and Green-tailed Towhee.

 Green-tailed Towhees were common in Southeastern Arizona

Curve-billed Thrashers were everywhere on my trip

We paused at another spot giving views of the stream which was filling up with birds.  Many robins were drinking in its water and it was attracting other birds including Curve-billed Thrashers.  Something caused the birds to flush and a large green bird flew out of a spot that I couldn't see.  The bird perched on a low branch in a sycamore and it was another Elegant Trogon, this one a male.

The second Elegant Trogon I saw in Florida Canyon

We watched this bird too until it too disappeared into the leaves.  Trogons have an amazing ability to hide in the open and not be seen when they don't want to and these ones proved to have that power.

We headed up canyon to look for our next target, Rufous-capped Warblers, a rare Mexican visitor that could be seen anywhere in the canyon.  We found a nice sunny spot near a bend in the creek that allowed great views of a large part of the canyon.  On one side was a rocky hillside with some grasses, cacti and shrubs that would prove to attract birds as did the riparian zone around the stream.  The other birder set up his large camera in a prime picture location.  I decided to venture further up the canyon to a spot and another bend where I had seen them last year.  This time there was no sign of the warblers but from this vantage point I saw a Coue's White-tailed Deer, a small race found only in Arizona and a Canyon Wren foraging along some rocks.

This wary Coue's White-tailed Deer is smaller than most other deer

I went back to the bend where the Louisiana birder was still waiting and he reported no signs of the warblers.  For the next half hour though, we were rewarded by many great looks at some of the area's specialty birds that were using this sunny patch of canyon.  I was looking through every woodpecker for a certain species, but for a while all the woodpeckers turned out to be either Acorn, Gila or Ladder-backed Woodpeckers with an occasional Northern Flicker thrown in.  But finally I spied something brown moving on a n oak 20 yards away.  The something turned out to be an Arizona Woodpecker, a unique species with a brown plumage instead of the typical black.  I got tremendous views of this life species for me for almost 20 minutes.  That's how you get a lifer.

The uniquely brown Arizona Woodpecker

The brown spot on an oak

 A brown spotted belly is another cool feature of this woodpecker

The Ladder-backed Woodpeckers also gave good lucks, Pyrrhuloxias showed off their beautiful looks and even Cactus Wrens came in close and sang one of the sounds I most associate with the desert.

 A male Ladder-backed Woodpecker trying its best to blend in.

 This female Ladder-backed Woodpecker stands out on this yucca stalk

 The Pyrrhuxolias likes to put some vegetation in between you and them

 This Cactus Wren was singing nearby

By this time, another birder had joined us.  He was also from the Southeast, but he was from Alabama.  We kept our vigil but the warblers didn't show.  The man from Louisiana then realized that he was just about space on his camera's memory card and decided to go to his car for another one.  The other southern gentleman chose to leave as well since he was going to meet his wife and was going to come back the next day as well.  About a few minutes after both had left, I started to hear some odd call notes coming about 30 feet up the trail.  As I got close to the repeated chik notes, my heart dropped for my earlier companions.  Here were the two Rufous-capped Warblers they were looking for.

 Here is one of the Rufous-capped Warbler people were searching for

The warblers ended up giving me amazing looks at times no farther than 5 feet away.  Last year when I saw them, they acted skulky and were unwilling to permit good views.  This year was the opposite as the fed in the various shrubs for the next 10 minutes in plain view until I stopped following the warblers as they went around a bend.  My excitement was tempered by the fact that I would have to tell the Louisianan that he had missed out on the warblers that he was looking for.  I'm not even sure if he would have been able to get pictures as close as the warblers were with his long lens.

 The Rufous-capped Warblers ended up being quite photogenic

 I love their colorful faces

 Another striking pose

This one tried to be skulky at times

After I got my fill of the Rufous-capped Warblers, I headed back towards the entrance.  After a few minutes I met back up with the other birder and delivered the bad news.  He took it in stride and remained hopeful especially with a birding field trip ahead of him that might be able to help him locating the birds.

I got back into my car and headed the short distance on to Madera Canyon, another amazing birding spot in Southeastern Arizona.  On my way, I saw several Loggerhead Shrikes and a few even let me stop my car next to them for looks.

Usually Loggerhead Shrikes don't let me get this close

My first stop in Madera Canyon was the Whitehouse Picnic Area.  I found a nice mixed flock of Bridled Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatches, Brown Creeper and Ruby-crowned Kinglets.  I pointed them out to an older couple who seemed particularly interested in the seeing the nuthatches.

 This White-breasted Nuthatch is eyeing me up

 Brown Creepers seem meant to blend into Alligator junipers

Bridled Titmice proved hard to photograph

I headed up canyon towards the Santa Rita Lodge and Madera Kubo, two lodges that cater to birders and also put out feeders for the public to view.  I walked to Santa Rita first where I found it full of turkeys with at least a dozen walking around on the grounds.  When one of the employees of the lodge went to fill the feeders the turkeys barely got out of the way as if they were pets.  There was a large flock of Mexican Jays coming to the feeders and quickly emptying them.  A stunning male Hepatic Tanager put in a cameo in the trees around the feeders.  After a careful search of a flock of Dark-eyed Juncos and Chipping Sparrows, I managed to pick out a Yellow-eyed Junco.

 A flock of Mexican Jays at Santa Rita Lodge

 The Mexican Jays were pretty tame

 Some of the many turkeys at Santa Rita Lodge

 A good view of the turkey's iridescent plumage

 A colorful male Hepatic Tanager

I finally managed to see this Yellow-eyed Junco

After I got my fill of the feeders at the Santa Rita Lodge, I headed down to a path in the forest and walked up to the feeders at Madera Kubo.  Along the way, I had some close encounters with my second ever Arizona Woodpecker, a Mexican Jay hiding some food and an Arizona Gray Squirrel.

 My second ever Arizona Woodpecker

 A good view of the Arizona Woodpecker's spotted belly

 This Mexican Jay was hiding some food for later

An Arizona Gray Squirrel feeds on something a Mexican Jay may have stashed

Up at Madera Kubo, the feeders were slower than at the Santa Rita Lodge but there were some nice specialties there.  A large Magnificent Hummingbird held down the area around the hummingbird feeders.  I could hear a Painted Redstart in the area but was unable to locate it. There were a few tree-clinging species in the area including Acorn Woodpecker and White-breasted Nuthatch.

 A young male Magnificent Hummingbird

Some of the bright colors on the gorget could already be seen

I had to drag myself away from Madera Canyon since I had more birding planned out and headed back to the highway.  I stopped for gas in the nearby town of Green Valley and while fueling my car I head the song of a thrasher across the road.  I filled the tank and parked my car and walked over to find the thrasher.  I followed its songs until finally spotted it, a nice Curve-billed Thrasher.  He didn't seem bothered by me and I approached close to him and got amazing looks from a species that usually doesn't let you get to see it. 

A very cooperative Curve-billed Thrasher

 Not the most flattering shot of the thrasher

 Singing away

 Side profile of the thrasher

A barrel cactus in the thrasher spot

A video of the Curve-billed Thrasher singing

I got back to my car and headed to my next spot, Patagonia State Park, the site of my missed trogon last year.  Before I got to the park, I drove some side roads looking for Botteri's Sparrows which had been seen in the area.  I thought I had one when a sparrow popped up from some shrubs and got my hopes up, but the sparrow ended up being a Rufous-crowned and I ended up striking out on the Botteri's.

While not a Botteri's, I still enjoyed this Rufous-crowned Sparrow

At Patagonia Lake State Park I headed straight to the Sonoita Creek trail.  All the spots were taken at the trailhead so I had to park a little farther away and walk.  On my walk I ran into a couple who mentioned the good birds they saw and also that they had just ran in to Victor Emanuel birding tour near the trailhead.  I thanked them and hurried to get ahead of the tour group.  I found them about 100 yards in and got in front of them and had great views at a Bewick's Wren at my feet, a male Ladder-backed Woodpecker hammering on a branch and a pair of Mexican Ducks on the lake in a flock of shovelers and teal.  There were other interesting birds on the lake included Double-crested and Neotropic Cormorants, Gadwall, Lesser Scaup and Ring-necked and Ruddy Ducks.

 A mohawked Ladder-backed Woodpecker

'Mexican' Mallards on Patagonia Lake

While at the lake shore, I heard the distinctive call of an Elegant Trogon and was excited for the prospect of seeing another trogon.  I went back to tell the leader of the field trip what I heard and told him that it was either a trogon calling or someone playing a tape of trogon.   He thought it may be the latter given that trogons rarely call in the winter.  I went back to follow the creek where I heard the call and I heard a strange call.  I looked up for its source and right over my head was gorgeous male Elegant Trogon.

Amazing views of a stunning tropical species

I managed to take a few pictures before I ran back to the birding tour and announced that I had found the trogon.  Most of them grabbed their scopes as I led them towards where I had seen the trogon, hoping the whole time that it would still be there.  At least I had a few pictures.  As we neared the area where I saw the trogon it wasn't in the place I left it, but I was relieved to find it about 20 yards from the original spot and about 20 yards away from us!  This one didn't seem to mind all the people and stayed in the area for a while.  I got the tour on the bird as they oohed and aahed as the bird put on a show.  It flycatched several times, one time it flew right over our heads and another time it caught a giant grasshopper-like bug that was almost as big as its head.  It still managed to each it and gave everyone in the tour lifer views of this spectacular species.  It even stuck around after a Great Horned Owl flew through the area.

 The Elegant Trogon was relaxing even with many people around

 Such beautiful colors

 It caught this giant bug...

 And managed to eat it whole!

 Here is a video of the trogon with the giant bug

After viewing the aptly named Elegant Trogon for over 20 minutes it flew back into the woods and I saw this as sign that I should get going myself.  I hiked in the direction of where the owl flew but I couldn't locate it.  There were some flycatchers around including a Black Phoebe and a Dusky Flycatcher and also some woodpeckers.  There were many Gila and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers and some Red-naped Sapsuckers and even a rare juvenile Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

 A fresh looking Dusky Flycatcher

 A very camouflaged juvenile Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

There were many Black Phoebes at Patagonia Lake State Park

I dodged some open range cattle blocking one path and continued back to the trailhead.  There weren't too many species on the walk back and once back to my car I headed to the visitor center where there were a few cool feeder birds including another Ladder-backed Woodpecker and an Anna's Hummingbird.

This photo shows why this male Ladder-backed Woodpecker got its name

This male Anna's Hummingbird isn't as colorful on a cloudy day

From the park I headed towards the the town of Patagonia where I would venture to the San Rafael Grasslands, one of my favorite locations in Southeast Arizona due to its big sky and great views plus the birds aren't that bad either.  This is one of the best spots for the Southwestern subspecies of the Eastern Meadowlark aka the Lillian's Meadowlark and they were common.  Coming over my first rise I was surprised to see a White-tailed Kite sitting on a fence post 40 yards away and it seemed surprised to see me too as it took off before I could get a picture of it sitting.  Another kite flew overhead making these two birds on the 3rd and 4th White-tailed Kites I have ever seen.

 'Lillian's' Eastern Meadowlarks were common in the grasslands

 I accidentally scared this White-tailed Kite. Oops

This kite helps show why they used to be named the Black-shouldered Kite

As I drove around the grasslands I saw many Vesper and Savannah Sparrows and once again missed my target, the Baird's Sparrow which winters in southeastern Arizona,  There were some other raptors around here including Northern Harrier, Red-tailed Hawk and American Kestrel.  I also missed Chestnut-collared Longspurs but had hopes to see them the next morning in Willcox. 

I drove back to the town of Patagonia and had dinner in a new pizzeria named Velvet Elvis where I had a delicious calzone and celebrated an amazing day of birding with the beer that I associate the most with birding, Dogfish Head 60 minute IPA due to me having it with lunch after mornings of birding Cape May.  I highly recommend that anyone in this area visit this tasty local establishment. 

After dinner I drove into unfamiliar territory and ended near Willcox where I found a nice place to sleep near Lake Willcox.  As I drifted asleep I thought about the 86 species I saw that day and the incredible encounters I had with some memorable birds.  It was fun visiting areas that I was already familiar with but seeing new birds at them.  Hopefully Saturday would be more of the same.

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Blogger Tim Avery said...

Great Post Kenny. Sweet shots of the Rufous-capped Warbler and Hepatic Tanager--two of my Central America nemesis birds!

February 17, 2014 at 10:49 AM  

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