Wednesday, 12 December 2012

The Patagonia Key, by,(with), Matt Brown

We didn't have to start so early on Monday morning. 7:30 was a fine time to begin for the birds I was after. And the key to getting them was to begin after sunrise in Patagonia. It being quail hunting season, Matt and I were going to have one last "audio-visual" hunt for the elusive and rarely seen Montezuma Quail, sometimes referred to as mythical, since so many birders rarely see or hear it. There was also word of a Ruddy Ground-Doven in Patagonia Lake State Park, and while there we would work on both the Hammond's and Dusky Flycatchers. And if time permitted, a drive north of Tucson for another rarity, a Mexican vagrant, know as a Rufous-backed Robin. Another intense" but fun day of target birding with Matt. Just the way we like it.

After a coffee at the Gathering Gounds, we set up into the hills and spent the morning looking and listening for the Montezuma Quail.  It was adventure hiking, to say the least, with spiked bushes and barbed things clinging to our pants and shoes.  Matt played the quail call and we walked and listened.  We could definitely see signs of their presence, as they leave distinctive scratch marks in the soil.  Finally, as we walked, we heard a clearly identifiable answer to our Montezuma Quail calls.  Later we would hear them calling from another location.  Matt was relieved as he didn't want me to leave Arizona believing that these birds were, indeed mythical.

Next we were off to Patagonia Lake State Park.  This would be my third trip there this year.  I had just recently seen the Elegant Trogon, but there had been few, if any, flycatchers that day.  Of course,  I was focused on the Trogon, so may have missed them.  This day, we would here for the Ruddy Ground-Dove and a couple of flycatchers.  We started at the visitor's centre and it took no time at all to find a female Ruddy Ground-Dove, not on the ground as its name would have you believe, but in a tree.  There were supposed to be two males, but they were MIA.  Good thing we made our first stop for the Ruddy's, because when we returned later for the males, there were no doves of any species to be seen.

Having had good looks at the dove, we headed down to the birding trail, where once Sandy Komito had seen the Nutting's Flycatcher at the beginning of his record setting Big Year.  A much easier place to get to that the Bill Williams River NWR.  We were on the hunt for the Hammond's and Dusky Flycatchers, and once we got to their preferred habitat, Matt began playing the calls.  Well, wouldn't you know it, the Hammond's flew in right away and we got spectacular looks at it.  Matt pointed out the flatter head, as though a cartoon anvil had landed on it.  It didn't take long for the Dusky to show up either.  Within ten minutes we had great looks at both.

Matt still hadn't seen the Trogon this year, and in fact, since I saw it, it has not been reported very much at all.  We kept an eye out for it, but couldn't locate it near where i had found it last time.  Good thing I wasn't counting on it for this trip, or I would have been quite disappointed.

But it was another very successful day of target birding with Matt.  Over the course of the year I have counted 31 year birds in the Patagonia area and 17 in the park itself.  But there were two more birds to look for before heading home.  There were reports of a Rufous-backed Robin and Rosy-faced Lovebirds had just been added to the ABA list.  I had to drive back to Tucson and then over to Phoenix, where I was flying home from, in order to bag those last two.

I drove up to Sabino Canyon Recreation Area but it was too late in the day to find the robin.  I ran into a gentleman who birds on weekends and business trips, whom I had met in Texas, along the trail.  Hemant was in the area for work and was birding the park, having no idea that the robin was around.  We looked together the first evening, but it turned out the bird we were chasing was likely a Black-throated Sparrow, based on the photo I took the next morning in the same bush.

Since it was getting dark, we decided to call it a night and come at daybreak the next morning.  I had really wanted to see it that night so I could get to Phoenix and stake out the Rosy-faced Lovebirds at dawn the next morning.  I could only hope to get the robin quickly the next morning and still have time before my flight to see the Lovebirds.

I arrived just as the sun was coming up on Tuesday morning and headed to the same spot as the previous day.  Except, I had been following Hemant the night before and I saw a sign for Sabino Dam East and West.  I didn't remember which way I had gone, so contacted Matt via text message for a little guidance.  Turned out that either way basically took you to the same place.  I met up with Hemant and we ran into a couple of hikers who had seen the bird the previous year and helped guide is to the exact right place to look.

But, there was no robin at all.  In fact, it had not been seen the previous day, and we decided to scout the entire area in case it was foraging elsewhere.  Eventually we split up to increase the odds.  Finding no sign of rufousness below the dam, I headed back to where it had originally been seen, and as I entered the area just above the dam I heard it's chip call.  It took me only a couple of minutes to chase it down, on and over and under some tree limbs, but then it tired of running and just hung out on a log long enough for a photo.  It moved around, I chased it, and got some more good looks and photos.

I needed to get on the road for Phoenix, as it was getting late, but first chased down Hemant and directed him to the bird.  I hope he got his photos.  I rushed off to the car, but not before getting a nice photo of a Phainopepla posing nicely atop a tree.  After a two hour drive to Phoenix, I only had an hour to scout around for the Rosy-faced Lovebirds, but ran out of time and had to catch my flight.  I was glad of my decision to stay for the Rufous-backed Robin, though.  The Lovebirds hadn't even been on my radar,(birdar?), until I arrived.

I left returned home having added 10 new year birds on my trip through Texas and Arizona and I left Arizona with over 140 Arizona species and 584 species for my Big Year.  16 to go.  Long shot, but worth trying for over the next 3 weeks.  I couldn't have done any of it without the amazing help of Melody Kehl and Matt Brown.  Please look them up next time you're in Arizona.

Ruddy Ground-Dove

Hammond's Flycatcher

Dusky Flycatcher

Rufous-backed Robin

The rufous back:


Sandhill Cranes in Texas

Verdin where I wish the Nutting's had landed in Bill Williams  River NWR

 Barrow's and Common Goldeneyes, together at the BW NWR Visitors Center

Made this while waiting for the Nutting's to return after my initial look

The crazy, scary road in Bill Williams River NWR that nearly broke my rental car


  1. Hi Robert -- it was great catching up with you at Sabino [after Estero Llano Grande, TX, in June!]. Great fun chasing down the Rufous-backed. I did manage to get some good pictures and will share as soon as I post. Best of luck getting to 600!

  2. Here are my pictures and report on the rufous-backed robin: