November 27, 2015

Trip Highlights: Southern Arizona November 2015

This is the story of how I reached my 500th life bird. (Plus one more.)

Mid-day on Sunday, November 22, my friend and fellow birder Ed Stonick picked me up at my house in La Crescenta, California to embark on a short trip, but my first, to the birding mecca that is southern Arizona. Along the way, we stopped in Fallbrook, in San Diego County, to pick up the third member of our party, Bill Moramarco. We arrived at our hotel in Sierra Vista at nearly midnight Arizona time, yet we would still be up before dawn the next day to seek out all the birds we could.

We began the morning of Monday, November 23 by first getting our required passes to enter the military base of Fort Huachuca, wherein Huachuca Canyon and its birding treasures awaited. Luckily this didn't take long, and we were out in the oak, sycamore, and pine-covered foothills of the canyon around 8:00 AM. Our priority was the first picnic area up the canyon, where an ABA Code 5 (i.e., a mega-rarity in the USA/Canada) Sinaloa Wren had been present since 2013. Sure enough, said wren became my first lifer (#495) of the trip, although for Ed the wren was a milestone of much greater magnitude (#700), likewise for Bill (#625); it was the only bird on the trip to be a lifer for all three of us. A mother and doe White-tailed Deer were also in the vicinity of the wren. Traveling up the canyon, I added 3 more lifers, all common specialties of the southeastern Arizona "sky islands": Bridled Titmouse, Mexican Jay, and Arizona Woodpecker. At mile 1.7, the end of the road, we ran into local birders Alan and Ann Miller, along with a pair of Arizona Gray Squirrels in the trees, but then, in one of the damndest moments of the trip, I discovered a brilliant male Rose-breasted Grosbeak (normally a bird of the eastern USA) as it flew into the trees not far from our group. On our return drive back down the canyon, we looked again for the Sinaloa Wren, with no luck.

That afternoon, we headed to several of the canyons further south, starting with Ramsey Canyon and its namesake Preserve, owned by The Nature Conservancy. Ostensibly, the plan had been to look for the Tufted Flycatchers some distance up the canyon, but these birds (the USA's first nesting record) had not been seen for over a month, so our walk was cut short. Nevertheless, we saw some good birds at Ramsey, including a Painted Redstart and, flying high in the trees between the Preserve visitor center and the Inn, a female Magnificent Hummingbird, which ended up being lifer #499 for me. On the way out of the canyon and back towards the main highway, we stopped in the desert-grassland habitat to search for one of my most-wanted species, Scaled Quail; alas, we found none, but we saw lots of other good birds there (Greater Roadrunner, Pyrrhuloxia, and Arizona's state bird, the Cactus Wren).

By now it was late afternoon, and I was only one bird away from #500. Continuing southward, our next stop was Miller Canyon and Beatty's Guest Ranch. Bill, Ed and I had considered ascending the canyon to look for the local Spotted Owls we knew were there, but we were all tired and would likely not have done so if Tom Beatty had not offered to show us the owls himself. We'd only traveled a short distance from the ranch when I chanced upon a pair of juncos hanging out on some rocks at the side of the trail; one was a "Gray-headed" Dark-eyed Junco, which I'd already seen plenty of, but the other was a Yellow-eyed Junco, my lifer #500! Unfortunately, no one else got a look at the Yellow-eyed, nor could I get a photo of my milestone bird, but the important thing was that I'd gotten there. With neither fellow observers nor photos to substantiate it, the sighting was almost anti-climactic.

A short while later, we saw the "Mexican" Spotted Owls 0.7 miles up the canyon, as we'd hoped for, and make no mistake, it was a great finish to a great day's birding, but those owls will always stand in the shadow of a little junco to me.

Did I mention we still had another full day in Arizona? Because we did. We checked out early from our Sierra Vista hotel on Tuesday, November 24, so as to get to Ajo, 3.5 hours to the west, at a reasonable hour, but "noon-ish", not the best time of day for birding, ended up being that hour. Eager to bird while the day was still young and thus checking the local rare bird alerts, Bill, Ed and I decided to stop at Sweetwater Wetlands, right along the interstate just north of Tucson, where a number of rarities (Brown Thrasher, Black-and-white Warbler, Baltimore Oriole, a late Greater Pewee) had been reported in the past few days. We missed the warbler by a hair, and completely dipped on everything else as well, but we at least got to add a number of waterbirds to our trip list, otherwise full mostly of woodland and desert birds. Between Gila Bend and Ajo on AZ-85 in Maricopa County, we saw a Prairie Falcon fly off a telephone pole, which was Arizona bird #300 for Bill. By the time we arrived in Ajo at mid-day, our focus was clear: find a Rufous-backed Robin anywhere they had been reported. The previous day, a birder had seen this annual rarity from Mexico in a yard at the Gibson Neighborhood Park's northwestern corner, so that was our first and main location within town. No robin, but a pair of Harris's Hawks put on a nice show. After an hour, we left that park to search two other nearby spots: the Ajo Community Golf Course (where the Rufous-backed had been seen) and Bud Walker Park (where a Spague's Pipit and Painted Bunting had been seen). Again, no Rufous-backed Robin (there were a few Americans), but we did see a ridiculous number of Gila Woodpeckers at the golf course and a male Vermilion Flycatcher at Bud Walker. We spent the remainder of the afternoon, another two hours, at Gibson Park, hoping the robin would show up at some point. It didn't, but as some compensation, we found females of both a Purple Finch (rare in Arizona) and Northern Cardinal, among other goodies. Leaving Ajo with minutes left of daylight, we stopped along the roadside north of town so I could check the Saguaros for Gilded Flickers, another potential lifer that I ended up not seeing. We arrived at our hotel in Yuma at about 7:30 PM.

Bill had to be home by 1:00 PM on Wednesday, November 25, but luckily Arizona was an hour ahead of California, which meant we could get some birding in at dawn in Yuma before we had to leave. Using Henry Detwiler's Yuma County birding book as a reference, we spent some time at the Yuma West Wetlands along the Colorado River right in town, and eventually we found our target: Crissal Thrasher, a lifer (#501) for me, my 7th and last of the trip. Including both lifers and otherwise, I'd added 84 birds to my Arizona list from November 23-25, bringing my state list up from 26 to 110 species, making it my fourth state list to cross the 100-species threshold (after CA, TX and OR) and also my fourth-highest state list in general. When we finally - after enduring some rough traffic that made us miss the deadline by a half hour - arrived at Bill's house in Fallbrook that day, a trio of Acorn Woodpeckers appeared in the palm tree across the street, which were a new addition (#109, #105 native) to my San Diego County list in California, serving as a welcome conclusion to a fantastic trip.

Posted on November 27, 2015 10:18 by john8 john8 | 39 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

August 17, 2014

Trip Highlights: Northern AZ/NM August 2014

This is my inaugural iNaturalist journal entry, so bear with me...

This past week (8/7-8/14), my parents and I traveled, mostly along I-40, through northern Arizona and New Mexico, to visit relatives at a wedding in Santa Fe and old family friends outside Albuquerque. It was my first time visiting either state, so in addition to all the new wildlife possibilities, I also got a chance to start two new state lists for my bird counts. (In case you're wondering, I ultimately ended with 70 bird species in NM and 26 in AZ.) This being primarily a social visit with my non-naturalist parents, spending entire days looking for wildlife was out of the question, though this being the west (as Kenn Kaufman would say), gorgeous scenery and abundant wildlife awaited at many of our stops, and I of course took full advantage. About a week before the trip, I had just purchased my first DSLR camera (a Canon T3i), making this the perfect opportunity to "field-test" it. Gone are the days of the old point-and-shoot!

A quick rundown of my new wildlife sightings: we stayed the first night in Flagstaff, AZ, visiting Lowell Observatory at dusk, seeing Gunnison's Prairie Dog on the way and my lifer Broad-tailed Hummingbird in the parking lot. Two days later, in Santa Fe, NM, we went to Randall Davey Audubon Center, where another lifer, Canyon Towhee, appeared for me in the parking lot, followed by Rock Squirrel at the feeders. After arriving in Albuquerque on the 11th, we rode the tram up to Sandia Crest, where I barely saw my first (presumed) Colorado Chipmunks as we were boarding the tram to head back down. The next day, whilst exploring Edgewood and Moriarty east of ABQ, I saw my lifer Chihuahuan Ravens along NM 472 and Juniper Titmouse on the grounds of Edgewood's Wildlife West Nature Park, an all-native NM zoo home to non-releasable animals. Heading home on the 13th, we stopped at the Rio Grande Nature Center in downtown ABQ, where I saw several turtles I'd previously only seen as exotics here in CA, as well as some new lizards; in the afternoon, we visited the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest National Park, where animals were fairly scarce, but the landscape more than made up for that. On the final leg home on the 14th, we visited Meteor Crater in AZ, and had planned on a stop at Havasu National Wildlife Refuge along the Colorado River (which would have given a nice boost to my AZ bird list), but there was road work going on.

In addition to all the new wildlife, I also saw some animals I hadn't seen in a few years, such as Virginia's Warbler (a January 2010 lifer and vagrant to Humboldt County, CA, when I was going to school there), Curve-billed Thrasher (March 2010 lifer from TX), and Least Chipmunk (October 2010 in UT). I also dipped on a few lifers I was hoping to get, most notably Common Nighthawk, but I'm young, and their time will come. All in all, though, a pretty successful family road trip!

Posted on August 17, 2014 05:21 by john8 john8 | 70 observations | 1 comments | Leave a comment

Archives