Sunday, June 15, 2014

SE Arizona Day 6: California Gulch, Montosa Canyon, and Mt. Lemmon

At the end of a long, extraordinary day 5, we got back to our hotel in Patagonia, where I spent an extra 20 minutes going over the route to California Gulch. The guide book we were using had excellent, specific directions, interspersed with ominous warnings about poor road conditions and the potential of road signs being down, and suggesting that you take someone who has been there before the first time. Hence my diligence in learning the route. I knew I wouldn't have cell service back in those remote canyons, so I just went ahead and memorized the mileages and places to turn. The next morning I awoke early, focused and ready for a long drive ahead.

Ruby Road took us west from I-19, and was a delightfully birdy way to start the day. Western Scrub-Jays and Cassin's Kingbirds were some of the more abundant species.

Cassin's Kingbird
Ruby Rd, Santa Cruz Co, AZ
May 24, 2014

We twisted and turned our way back up canyon after canyon. Frequent switchbacks prevented me from  picking up much speed, but the road conditions were fine and we were making good time in the early morning light. And then another crazy thing happened, perhaps my favorite experience of the trip. Around one corner, the white face of a Montezuma Quail caught my eye soon enough for me to slow down without scaring it off. We enjoyed several minutes of watching this bird at point blank range, right out in the open. This was truly a once in a lifetime experience. I never thought I would get a Montezuma Quail photo quite like this.


Montezuma Quail
Ruby Rd, Santa Cruz Co, AZ
May 24, 2014

Quite energized by this, we kept moving, coming across more regional specialties. Phainopepla is fun to say, spell, and look at.

Phainopepla
Ruby Rd, Santa Cruz Co, AZ
May 24, 2014

Ash-throated Flycatcher
Ruby Rd, Santa Cruz Co, AZ
May 24, 2014

Further up the never ending trek, we came across the eerie ghost town of Ruby.

Ghost Town of Ruby, Santa Cruz Co, AZ
May 24, 2014

It had been quite the journey already, but we still made it to California Gulch by 7 am. We had several Varied Buntings on this stretch the road, along with our best looks at Black-tailed Gnatcatchers for the trip.

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher
California Gulch, Santa Cruz Co, AZ
May 24, 2014

And at last, we reached the designated parking area, and had this view of California Gulch.

California Gulch, Santa Cruz Co, AZ
May 24, 2014

On the trail down to the bottom of the gulch, we could already hear the Five-striped Sparrows beginning to sing. We found them with surprising ease, and enjoyed ridiculous views of a rather secretive bird that can only be found a couple places in the ABA region. He sang away in the open and curiously checked us out as though he had no idea he was rare. The five stripes are made up by the white stripes on each supercilium, each malar, and the throat. Another incredible lifer!








Five-striped Sparrow
California Gulch, Santa Cruz Co, AZ
May 24, 2014

Lizard sp.
California Gulch, Santa Cruz Co, AZ
May 24, 2014

Crippling looks at Montezuma Quail and Five-striped Sparrows over the course of one hour makes for a pretty decent morning of birding, I'd say! Ruby Road was still rocking on the way out too.


Cassin's Kingbird
Ruby Rd, Santa Cruz Co, AZ
May 24, 2014

Loggerhead Shrike
Ruby Rd, Santa Cruz Co, AZ
May 24, 2014

We made a quick stop at Sycamore Canyon, which is a place that fills me with intrigue. Apparently a walk back up the canyon gets you into some amazing habitat, and though we didn't have time to get back there this time, I have a feeling I'll be back there at some point. Of course, Vermillion Flycatchers and more Gray Hawks always make a stop worthwhile.

Vermillion Flycatcher
Sycamore Canyon, Santa Cruz Co, AZ
May 24, 2014

Gray Hawk
Sycamore Canyon, Santa Cruz Co, AZ
May 24, 2014

So we had survived the California Gulch adventure, with only a couple rough patches in the road and only one stop by the Border Patrol. From there it was a quick trip north to Rio Rico, where our target bird was quite conspicuous: my lifer Tropical Kingbird. My dad picked it out easily due to his extended experience with them in Texas. It looks like a Western, but with a longer tail, larger bill, and an overall more brilliant coloration. I was surprised at just how distinct it looked.




Tropical Kingbird
Rio Rico, Santa Cruz Co, AZ
May 24, 2014

Of course there was one of these hanging out, too.

Gray Hawk
Rio Rico, Santa Cruz Co, AZ
May 24, 2014

The resident White-faced Ibis and Black-bellied Whistling Ducks were easy also.

White-faced Ibis
Rio Rico, Santa Cruz Co, AZ
May 24, 2014

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Mallard, and Cinnamon Teal
Rio Rico, Santa Cruz Co, AZ
May 24, 2014

Montosa Canyon was our next stop, where we had one more bird we were hoping to pick up. A family of Black-tailed Gnatcatchers was a nice sight at the beginning of the canyon, and my dad pointed out that the more familiar we became with these guys, the easier it would be to pick out a Black-capped.


Black-tailed Gnatcatcher
Montosa Canyon, Santa Cruz Co, AZ
May 24, 2014

Awesome lizard with a crazy tail:


Lizard sp.
Montosa Canyon, Santa Cruz Co, AZ
May 24, 2014

At the concrete crossing, I wandered back up the dried out creek bed, hoping to come across more gnatcatchers. Something caught my eye, but it was not a gnatcatcher, "Hooded Warbler!" I called out. It never made a sound, but flit around not far from us for a few seconds before diving back into the brush and skulking around. This bird breeds 10 minutes from my home in Wheaton, but these are the best pics I've ever managed of one. As I tried to follow it, another surprising bird popped into view, a female Black-and-White Warbler! The eastern warblers had struck again!


Hooded Warbler
Montosa Canyon, Santa Cruz Co, AZ
May 24, 2014

Black-and-white Warbler
Montosa Canyon, Santa Cruz Co, AZ
May 24, 2014

We kept working the roadside, where we had a handful of nice birds as we tried to cover as much territory as possible. Then out of nowhere, we heard the distinct call of a Black-capped Gnatcatcher, looked up to see it flit around in a bush, heard it a second time, and that was it. A fleeting experience, but the combination of what we saw and heard unmistakably added up to Black-capped Gnatcatcher. The last lifer of the trip for me, but much more importantly, this is how my dad hit #650 for the ABA. Another goal for the trip accomplished, and a really impressive milestone.

It was all down hill from there as we cruised back into Tuscon for the night. That evening we tried birding Mt. Lemmon, but the Memorial Day traffic made it very difficult to hear. We did get vocalizations from Whiskered Screech and Elf Owls, and rounded out our Pima County nightjars with a Mexican Whip-poor-will. Another very successful day in the books.