With the DaVinci like precision of a master architect, Matt Brown my birding friend from Patagonia, Arizona, designed Tuesday bird outing to maximize every bird in every location from the San Rafael Valley to Florida Canyon and Madera Canyon to the Tubac Bridge in Santa Cruz, and a rest stop or two at the Santa Rita Lodge. Matt's influence didn't end there, as stops today at Patagonia Lake State Park and a return to San Rafael Valley and the Tubac Bridge just added to the wonderfulness of the past 3 days in south eastern Arizona.
Monday was a great day of birding. We saw some great birds. But when it comes to specific targeted species, the last two days were amazing. We went up at the crack of dawn, O-Dark-30, in military parlance. We needed to be up in the canyon, which sounds odd to me, at first light in order to see the Baird's Sparrow. The bird is secretive and sometimes difficult to find unless you hear it sing, and is usually found on its breeding grounds in North Dakota. It Winters in Mexico but can also be found in south east Arizona late in the year, saving many birders the time and expense of hunting it in the summer. That includes me.
But the bird loves to stay low in the grass and only comes out at first light to sit on fences and warm up. That only takes an hour or so, so the window of opportunity is quite narrow. The only way to get this bird, as Greg Miller once suggested, is to really want it. I really wanted it. So I was up at 4:30 Wednesday morning and on the road by 5am to drive down to meet Matt at the Patagonia Post Office. We headed up a long series of gravel roads, in the morning gloom, hoping to catch a Montezuma Quail in the headlights, but it was not to be, either on the way up or down. When we arrived at San Rafael the only birds to be seen were Eastern Meadowlarks and some Savannah Sparrows.
Perhaps we were a little early. Funny how the bird guides insist in these early starts and then are always surprised when there are no birds around. However in this case it was better to be a little early and wait for the Baird's rather than come late and not see them at all. And see them we did. It didn't take long for one, then another Baird's to jump up on the barbed wire fences to warm themselves after a chilly night. We saw our first through the scope, then had two side by side. I was finally able to walk up close enough to photograph one right next to a Savannah. Not even 8am and we had our first bird.
We were next going to try for the Chestnut-collared Longspurs. They usually fly in flocks and land near a body of water for a drink and quickly fly out again, only to return a few minutes later. But not today. Sure Matt was hearing a couple overhead, and I could kind of make out their song, but nothing was coming within even binocular range. We had a tight schedule and were only able to give them about a half hour to show. Which they didn't. Longspurs would have to wait.
Our next stop was Florida Canyon and don't be caught calling it Florida as in the state of Florida. Bad form here in Arizona. A few days ago I was in Pennsylvania and said I'd be searching for the Rufous-capped Warbler on Wednesday in Florida,(as in the state), Canyon and was quickly chastised for not using the Spanish pronunciation. Well, excuse me. It is correctly spoken, phonetically, as "Flor-E-da Canyon." They pronoucne canyon the American way, so lucky I didn't call it, "Flor-E-da Can-E-on." Oh the egg on my face had I done that.
It was a long hike up the canyon,(yes I know, it's all backwards), past a man sitting on a rock looking at nothing and perhaps contemplating everything, to the Warbler's habitat. It actually didn't take more than 5 minutes to spot the bird. Actually two birds. Matt was pointing toward the ground, trying to get me to look where he was looking at one bird, but I already had this beautiful Warbler in my sights. No messing up this identification. The Rufous-capped Warbler has a distinctive look. Full breeding plumage, even in the winter.
That done we headed back down the canyon in search of Black-chinned Sparrows. A gentleman birder passing by said he had seen quite a few not too long ago, so we stayed in one spot, played a tape of the Black-chinned song and what do ya know, the Sparrow showed up as though he had been invited to the symphony. We watch the bird for a while but we were late for an important date with a Crissal Thrasher. No rest for the weary birder. We were on a mission, and it was timed with military precision, so off we went to Madera Canyon.
On the way in we stopped at a bridge and played Crissal Thrasher song and in short order were hearing one. We headed to the sound and soon found it high in a tree. I could see it okay through my binoculars, but Matt ran back to the car to get the scope and told me to keep my eye on it. I did for about half a minute, until it flew and hid. These guys don't like to be seen. Rather flighty and secretive. Just not sure how he know I was even looking at him from that distance. Alas, yet another thrasher that was camera shy. The only one I have a photo of is a Curve-billed Thrasher and the Crissal has an even curvier bill than the Curve-billed. Who names these birds anyway?
Thrasher ticked off the list, we were now in search of Arizona Woodpecker and a couple of Flycatchers. And because birding is a community sport. a nice couple, who had just seen a male Arizona up in the woods and a female at the feeders at Santa Rita Lodge, where we stopped for snacks, gave us directions to where the bird was last seen. The key being last seen. We walked for about an hour without once seeing one, though we did hear a couple. Well, Matt did. We just couldn't chase it down.
We still wanted to find Flycatchers, but needed to head back toward Patagonia, if we were going to get a chance to see Lawrence's Goldfinches. I suggested taking an extra few minutes down at Santa Rita Lodge, and hope that the Arizona Woodpecker would come for a visit. I sat on the bench overlooking the feeders while Matt went down to the road to look for Flycatchers. Nothing was happing. I needed an Arizona Woodpecker and wasn't going to leave without one. There just wasn't time for luck. So, I used the Force. What could it hurt? It certainly wasn't something to pray over, and I am not wont to pray anyway. I was sitting there and a little voice said, "Use the Force." So I focused all my energy on an Arizona Woodpecker showing up at the feeder.
I closed my eyes. Willed it. Opened my eyes. Nothing. Well, what did I expect. Then, while I was looking to the left, an Arizona Woodpecker flew into the suit feeder from the right. Brown back, no mistaking it. And then I got a look at the red on the head. A male. I got photos. I watched it. Waved Matt up to see what I had brought,(I didn't admit using the Force). We stayed until the Woodpccker retreated to the woods and it was back in the car and a long drive to the Tupac Bridge and Lawrence's Goldfinch. I had chased this bird on a bridge in California with no success. I knew Matt's good karma would help this time. After all, we were having a pretty good day and we had found 5 owls together on previous visits.
We walked the bridge, played Goldfinch calls and waited and waited. And waited. Lesser Goldfinches showed. And we waited. We were losing light. It was time for the Force again. And, wouldn't you know it. Nothing. Matt took his bird calls down below the bridge and played some more. I saw a bird with Goldfinch flight characteristics fly into a nearby tree. I heard what I thought was a Lawrence's but Matt was also playing the call. Though I didn't think it was his. As it turned out, I was right. It was a Lawrence's Goldfinch in the tree above. Matt quickly found it in his binoculars but it took me quite a while to spot it. It was tucked behind a branch. But once I saw it, no doubt, I had my Lawrence's. Matt grabbed his scope and we got a great close up look at the bird. I just couldn't get any kind of photo of the bird.
That didn't matter. We had seen six great birds. We had hiked many miles, drove hundreds more and had a enviable list for one day: Baird's Sparrow, Rufous-capped Warbler, Black-chinned Sparrow, Crissal Thrasher, Arizona Woodpecker and Lawrence's Goldfinch.
I deserved a celebratory dinner and adult drink. So I took myself out to Chilli's and had a spiked lemonade with dinner and it was yummy. Needless to say, I was too tired to write anything. I had trouble getting to sleep. A lot had happened that day, so I let myself sleep in until 5:30 this morning. I didn't have to be up in San Rafael Valley quite as early to see the Longspurs, and in fact, a little later might have been better. I drove slowly up to the valley, hoping for a Montezuma Quail and thought I had something, but it turned out to be a phantom, quail shaped stick I was stalking.
However, when I did arrive up at the little ponds, it wasn't long before I was hearing the Chestnut-collard Longspurs and very quickly thereafter was treated to a Longspur Show. A flock would swoop in, 25-30 birds, dip down to the water, get a drink and then fly off. Occasionally they would land, mostly in the grass, but were nearly invisible even when Landing on the edge of the water. Brown birds against brown dirt. I was able scope them for moments at a time but photos were near impossible. I will have to go through them all later to see if there are any good ones. However, there was no doubt that I had seen a typical flocking behaviour of the Chestnut-collard Longspur. Great start to the morning.
I new Matt was being treated to breakfast by a rich, retired super-elete birder, down in Patagonia, so I headed back for coffee and a chat. I got to meet this birder who knew as much about The Toronto Blue Jays as he did about all the real birds he had seen in his life. And he has seen a lot. I never got his name but very few people have seen more birds than he. In fact, he has seen more than half of all the birds there are to see in the world, over 5000. Yet he was impressed, not only by the recent moves the Toronto Blue Jays have made, but by the fact I had seen 567 birds so far this year, having just started birding with this Big Year.
As cool as that was, the news was going to get even better. Matt knew that an Elegant had been coming to Patagonia Lake State Park the past few years to overwinter. i had searched for this bird on two occasions along the Carrie Nation Trail in Madera Canyon with no success. And just in the nick of time, as I had to leave for the airport at 7pm, the Trogon was being seen as of at least yesterday along the Bird Trail in Patagonia, just 20 minutes away. I wanted this bird. Matt warned me it wasn't going to be a "slam dunk," as there were lots of trees in which the Trogon could hide, but if I did find it, it would probably sit up for a photo or two. I was psyched.
After exchanging a few more pleasantries and talking a little more baseball with Matt's friend, I headed off to Patagonia with directions to the probable location of the bird. Drive into the park, make a right turn at the T-intersection, drive to the end of the trailer camp grounds. There are 4 parking spots. Park and hike the Bird Trail Past the lake. Walk along the creek and you will see a bridge made of logs. Further down there is a second log bridge. The Trogon has been seen somewhere between the two bridges not far from the creek and on either side.
Mat was right on. It was no slam dunk, It wasn't a long walk to the creek, and it wasn't particularly hot, and the birds along the way were nice to look at. But there were no other birders around looking for the bird. I was alone in on the trails, tiptoeing past the cow pies, walking along the creek, crossing from one side to the other. I was texting Matt for some advice and he told me to keep an eye out for branches no higher than 10-15 feet off the ground. I looked and walked and looked. It wasn't looking promising. It was like looking for a needle-bird in a bird-stack.
I had been walking for nearly 2 hours. I still had an hour or so before I had to think of getting out of there when I just glanced to my left and there, not 15 feet away, at eye level on a horizontal branch was the most colorful bird I have ever seen. It was like a camera flash going off in my face. I was momentarily a birder caught in the headlights. Then I started quietly shouting, "Don't move, don't move, DON'T MOVE!" I didn't even have to get my binocular up. I grabbed the camera from my holster, and started clicking away. The Beautiful, colorful and elegant in every way, Trongon stayed and eyed be curiously for about 2 minutes, and then flew off. Luckily into another close by tree. I got a few more looks and then he was gone nearly as quickly as he appeared.
There was no one to High Five. That was my thirteenth new bird in 3 days. Species number 568 for the year. It was a great day of birding. I just had a few loose ends to wrap up before heading to the airport. I needed a photo of the Lawrence's Goldfinch at Tubac Bridge and had to check as spot to see if a Rufous-backed Robin had shown up for winter yet. No on the Robin, but a big yes on the Goldfinch photos. In fact a flock of six landed on a dead tree at the bridge. They were kind of far away, so the photo is not great. Before I left I met another birder who said a Lewis's Woodpecker had been seen at a nearby golf course. I headed over and search for an hour until it got dark, but no luck.
So here I sit in a Starbucks in Philadelphia, on Thanksgiving, getting ready to drive to Connecticut for a Thanksgiving Goose. Barnacle Goose, that is.