Wednesday, June 4, 2014

SE Arizona, Day 1: Florida Canyon and Madera Canyon

I really don't know where or how to start summarizing this trip, so I'll let Kenn Kaufmann do it. He wrote the introduction to the 8th edition of Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona, and began it with these poignant sentences:

The person fortunate enough to be interested in birds and nature will find cause for fascination anywhere in the world. A few regions of the earth have something more, however, an irresistible allure for birders. Southeastern Arizona is one of those magical regions.

My dad and I experienced a full dosage of the magic, covering a lot of ground, racking up 185 species and triple digits in three different counties, and seeing some truly amazing, unexpected things along the way. The combination of incredible birds and outstanding looks at many of them is what stands out the most to me, along with the 37 lifers of course. Every day seemed to improve upon the previous one, making for one heck of a week.

We put in a lot of work, which initially took the form of route planning and scouting from afar in the weeks and months previous to the trip via eBird, blogs, and the aforementioned bird guide. Once we got on the ground in Tucson, the work had actually just begun. We arrived Sunday night, May 18th, and left the following Sunday afternoon. In between we logged somewhere near a thousand miles in our Jeep Liberty rental (a vehicle neither of us even remotely liked, though its high clearance admittedly came in handy on a few important occasions) and hiked a fair amount to get to some of the more remote specialties of the region. Below is a skeleton look at our route, which essentially ended up being a huge figure 8. 


A delayed flight and a trip to Walmart to stock the ice chest for the week made Sunday night rather late. I got to bed after midnight, which felt like 2 am to my CST-oriented inner clock. Nevertheless, getting out of bed less than 4 hours later was not a big struggle as we were on the cusp of the wonder of SE Arizona birding.

On our way out of Tucson, the first glimmers of daylight provided a backdrop to the stately, silhouetted Saguaros. A relatively short drive had us approaching Florida Wash before dawn, and the sounds of Cactus Wrens and a Pyrrhuloxia were sure signs that we were in desert country. An Ash-throated Flycatcher popped up in a distant bush, followed by a Brown-crested further down the road, and a Loggerhead Shrike darted across in front of us. Then the specialties started rolling in. My first lifer of the trip was a Rufous-winged Sparrow, which is not a terribly rare bird, though it is rather local and is only found reliably in a handful of locations in Arizona. Here's the first one I saw.

Rufous-winged Sparrow
Florida Wash, Pima County, AZ
May 19, 2014

We quickly started hearing Lucy's Warblers, and lots of them. There were two separate groups of at least four birds working near the wash, but they all kept moving too quickly in the dim light for a decent picture. Our first Costa's Hummingbird of the trip was present here, and our first Bell's Vireo of many sang constantly. Then came my next lifer, the sparrow I had really been looking forward to: Botteri's Sparrow.

Botteri's Sparrow
Florida Wash, Pima County, AZ
May 19, 2014

We drove back to White House Canyon Road to head to Florida Canyon, and on the way found another Rufous-winged.

Rufous-winged Sparrow
White House Canyon Road, Pima County, AZ
May 19, 2014

Then Black-throated Sparrows started singing and popping up everywhere, rivaling Lucy's Warbler as the most abundant bird of the first hour of daylight. We were also surprised by the numbers of Black-headed Grosbeaks and Western Tanagers in the desert habitat.

Black-throated Sparrow
White House Canyon Road, Pima County, AZ
May 19, 2014

And then it was on to the Florida Canyon Trail, which was no easy feat. The trail was tricky, though manageable. I had a harder time getting my bearings with all the new bird sights and sounds. I had done plenty of studying beforehand, but by the end of the first morning I still felt like I was scrambling to learn calls and keep up with everything darting in and out of the bushes - which was difficult with such dense vegetation. After a little while, I began to get more comfortable with some of the more common species in the area.



Canyon Towhee
Florida Canyon, Pima County, AZ
May 19, 2014

Phainopepla
Florida Canyon, Pima County, AZ
May 19, 2014

Verdin
Florida Canyon, Pima County, AZ
May 19, 2014



Broad-billed Hummingbird
Florida Canyon, Pima County, AZ
May 19, 2014

Other expected species included Anna's Hummingbird, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Lazuli Bunting, Summer Tanager and Scott's Oriole. A couple unexpected species like Indigo Bunting and an actively singing Black-and-white Warbler had me feeling like Illinois had followed me to the southwest - a feeling that never really left the whole trip, I'll be getting to that later. I was thrilled to spot my lifer Gray Hawk about half way up the trail gliding along a ridge. This was one I wasn't totally counting on, but let's just say for now that this was not our last encounter of the trip.

We worked our way up the western fork of the canyon, checking the eastern slope all the way up. We eventually came to a place where the trail petered out near a stand of oaks. At this spot, two birders with a guide were sitting and waiting, which meant we had found the right location. It was relatively quiet for the longest time, with Bewick's Wrens making up the bulk of the noise. And then, a new chattering began. Followed by some movement. I was looking up into some dense understory, backlit by the midmorning sun, and saw three birds. The first that I got on was a Bewick's Wren of course, then something else darted out of view. But the next bird popped down on a branch in the open for a few seconds, long enough for me to make out a dark cap and strong white supercilium with its tail cocked straight up. The lighting was harsh, so colors were difficult to see sharply, but I could see it well enough to know the cap was rufous and the underside was yellow. I had my lifer Rufous-capped Warbler!!! I repositioned myself to try to get a better look, but by the time I did so, the birds had disappeared and the area went quiet again. I wished I had looked for one less second and snapped a photo, but if I had done that, I may not feel as confident in the field marks I had seen. My dad had seen these guys well in Texas last year, so he was content with hearing them well and getting a quick glance. Better to have a quick encounter with a great bird than to not encounter it at all. We got back down the canyon after a 5 hour excursion, and it wasn't even noon, our first rarity was in the bag, and our trip had started with a bang!

The top photo is the view from the trail head looking back down, the second shows the trail heading up Florida Canyon, where we had just come from.


Florida Canyon, Pima County, AZ
May 19, 2014

From there we decided to head up Madera Canyon. In Arizona, one of the keys to birding is to do lowland, dessert areas in the morning while things are still active before it gets too hot, then move your way up in elevation later in the the day. This definitely proved to be true as we came across a surprising amount of activity at our first stop near the Santa Rita lodge. The most conspicuous bird here was the lovely Painted Redstart.  These are brilliantly colored birds, and one of the ones I was most excited to see again coming back here. I love the way they fan their tails out as the flit from branch to branch, which you can really see in the third picture.





Painted Redstart
Madera Canyon, Pima Co, AZ
May 19, 2014

Gregarious Acorn Woodpeckers and Mexican Jays were also plentiful.

Acorn Woodpecker
Madera Canyon, Pima Co, AZ
May 19, 2014



Mexican Jay
Madera Canyon, Pima Co, AZ
May 19, 2014

Another cool thing about birding further south is the increased number of reptiles. We saw a lot of cool lizards, still working on the IDs - please comment if you see corrections that need to be made!

Sonoran Spotted Whiptail
Madera Canyon, Pima Co, AZ
May 19, 2014

Yarrow's Spiny Lizard
Madera Canyon, Pima Co, AZ
May 19, 2014


A nice couple then told us about a Gray Hawk nest nearby. We investigated, and found this! You can barely see the face poking out of the top.

Gray Hawk on nest
Madera Canyon, Pima Co, AZ
May 19, 2014

While here, we had the surprise of a flyby Blue-throated Hummingbird, which stopped long enough for us to see its blue throat and slow wingbeats, then it promptly tppl off. I was counting on this lifer on the trip, but not in Madera Canyon! Then my lifer Plumbeous Vireo showed briefly - a bird that ended up being far more common than I expected on the trip. Then my dad and I got on this remarkably cooperative Hutton's Vireo which just bounced around a few feet away form us - my best looks ever at this species.

Hutton's Vireo
Madera Canyon, Pima Co, AZ
May 19, 2014

Up at Santa Rita Lodge, we started getting our first real dosage of hummingbirds, as Black-chins were numerous along with a couple really nice Broad-bills. Then further up we had our first Magnificent.

Black-chinned Hummingbird
Madera Canyon, Pima Co, AZ
May 19, 2014

Borad-billed Hummingbird
Madera Canyon, Pima Co, AZ
May 19, 2014

Magnificent Hummingbird
Madera Canyon, Pima Co, AZ
May 19, 2014

Here's my dad photographing a Broad-billed Hummingbird. He's south of his usual range here, but with the binoculars, camera, and a nearby bird, he's pretty impossible to misidentify.


At the highest parking area on the road, we were greeted by yet another lifer for me, the maniacal looking Yellow-eyed Junco. Against the dark mask, that yellow eye looks like it's plugged in!

Yellow-eyed Junco
Madera Canyon, Pima Co, AZ
May 19, 2014

Several Dusky-capped Flycatchers were around, too, which was also a lifer. We ended up getting quite a few of all of the Myiarchus flycatchers on the trip, and they turned out to be easier to ID than I had anticipated. Dusky-capped is the only one with a plain brown tail, while Ash-throated and Brown-crested have a rufous colored tail, and this field mark was easier to discern than I expected. Dusky-capped and Brown-crested are colored pretty similarly, though the comparatively large size of the latter makes it stand out quite easily. And the paleness of the Ash-throated is rather distinct too. The combination of color saturation, tail color, and size worked together to make most of the Myiarchus IDs quite simple. Vocalizations helped a great deal too, of course.

Dusky-capped Flycatcher
Madera Canyon, Pima Co, AZ
May 19, 2014

For the evening, Proctor Road was the target. After dinner, we birded the same lowlands area where we had begun the day. We finally scrounged up a Curve-billed Thrasher.

Curve-billed Thrasher
Continental Wash, Pima Co, AZ
May 19, 2014

Verdin
White House Canyon Road, Pima Co, AZ
May 19, 2014

Western Wood-Pewee
White House Canyon Road, Pima Co, AZ
May 19, 2014

A bird that I did not expect to see on this trip was the Varied Bunting, but a look at the reports from the day indicated that they had just arrived. So we put some effort into finding one and it paid off, as I got some really nice looks at this surprising lifer!

Varied Bunting
White House Canyon Road, Pima Co, AZ
May 19, 2014

Then it was on to Proctor Road, where we waited patiently and listened quietly for two hours for the Buff-collared Nightjar. But it was not to be found this night. It was a bummer, but we knew we'd have another shot at them later in the trip. We had some good looks at Lesser Nighthawks though, and a vocalizing Common Poorwill and Elf Owl rounded out a really nice first day of the trip.


Lesser Nighthawk
Proctor Road, Pima Co, AZ
May 19, 2014


Sunset
Proctor Road, Pima Co, AZ
May 19, 2014

Day 1 came to a close. We had 68 species on the day, which ended up being our lowest day total. My 11 lifers ended up being my highest day total. The good times were just beginning.