January 18 – 24: I had for some time been contemplating a return trip to southern Arizona whenever the possibility arose for several rarities there. Such was the case last week and the time was finally right, so I flew from West Palm Beach to Phoenix on January 18 and drove straight out to Yuma, arriving there at 4:45 PM and heading without delay for Riverside Park along the banks of the Colorado River to look for a Streaked-back Oriole that is wintering there this year. There I met up with Arizonan colleague Matt VanWallene who was already photographing the Oriole when I pulled into the parking lot, but as soon as I got out of the car, after the briefest glimpse, off flew the oriole which predictably wasn’t seen again for the rest of the late afternoon.
Turns out it didn’t matter. We were back at the park bright and early the next morning and the oriole (trip life bird no. 1) obligingly made its first appearance at 8:05 AM, after which it remained in view off and on until we finally reluctantly tore ourselves away about an hour and a half later having taken a couple of hundred pictures.
We then made a twenty minute stop at an agricultural area south of Yuma Airport to scan some fallow fields for Mountain Plover, and although we didn’t find any plover we admired a nice Ferruginous Hawk, a particularly beautiful raptor I had previously photographed only once before in central Oregon.
There had been reports of a Ruddy Ground-Dove at a location only a mile from the I-8 exit in Wellton, a small town thirty miles east of Yuma, so Wellton was the next stop. The location turned out to be a fenced-in yard that featured a pond with an adjacent dense scrubby tree with a flock of about twenty Inca Doves. After a few minutes of scrutinizing each dove for an odd one, Matt finally picked out a Ruddy Ground-Dove (trip life bird no. 2) hunkered down on the ground in deep shade and dense cover. While we were trying to get enough of an opening for any photo at all, the doves edged about just enough for us to realize there was actually a second Ruddy Ground-Dove keeping company with the first.
We spent about forty-five minutes with the doves and then it was on to Catalina State Park located two and a half hours to the east and twenty miles north of Tucson. Here we were lucky to find, within just fifteen minutes, our next target species – a Rufous-backed Robin hanging out in its favorite spot in the grass under a Hackberry tree between the main parking lot and the wash. Fortunately there was just enough late afternoon light to get a few decent photos of the robin (trip life bird no. 3). This made a most unusual three life birds in one day – all three Mexican rarities. I had planned to stay overnight near Catalina SP in case we failed to find the robin in the afternoon, but now there was no reason to do that, so Matt returned home to the Phoenix area and I headed south to Green Valley.
In the morning (Jan. 20) my first stop was at a location south about thirty-five miles in Rio Rico to look for a bird that had eluded me for ten years. Here I was finally able to cross paths with a group of Long-eared Owls (trip life bird no. 4) – a magnificent but extraordinarily difficult species to even find, let alone photograph. Seeing any owl is always special, but the Long-eared was one of only two remaining North American owls I had never seen and was therefore an especially memorable experience.
After Rio Rico I took the short cut north of Nogales over to route 82 and then north some twelve miles to Patagonia, which I had visited twice in prior years. First I made the obligatory stop at the Paton house – famous for its variety of in-season hummingbirds. Even though it is not in-season in January, the yard and environs always have a nice variety of other species such as this Green-tailed Towhee. I called local guide Matt Brown whom I had met in Gambell, Alaska a few years ago and he graciously offered to meet me the following morning (Jan. 21) to look for wintering Baird’s Sparrow in the San Rafael Grasslands, and hopefully Montezuma Quail somewhere. I stayed overnight at the Spirit Tree Inn, and Matt VanWallene rejoined me there early in the morning where together we met up with Matt Brown.
The San Rafael Grasslands is just a few miles from Patagonia down Harshaw Road and we were all there shortly after sunrise, but we never did find a Baird’s Sparrow (I had previously seen one on territory in North Dakota). The grass was tall and the sparrows mostly hiding and not perching on the barbed wire fencing as they sometimes do. We did pick up the pale “Lillian’s” subspecies of Eastern Meadowlark, and got some very close-up views of the many American Kestrels perching on the fenceposts – one of them holding an intact freshly caught mouse in its beak.
I happened to ask Matt Brown if he might know where to look for a Dusky Flycatcher (trip life bird no. 5) – not a rare bird at all, but the only Empidonax species I had just never come across on prior western trips). Matt knew just where to look and he found one easily enough at Patagonia Lake State Park, readily identified by its characteristic upward tail flicking. I wasn’t sure they were year-round in the area, but Matt’s expertise prompted me to ask also about Whiskered Screech Owl – after the Long-eared now my only remaining unseen North American owl species. Accordingly, we set out after dark along the Harshaw Road and at the third stop Matt located not just one but two cooperative Whiskered Screech-Owls which we were able to readily photograph in the beam of his light. Trip life bird no. 6.
Friday morning, Jan 22, we engaged local guide Laurens Halsey for a visit to the Sinaloa Wren stake-out spot on the grounds of Fort Huachuca. There were lots of good birds there, including a pair of Arizona Woodpeckers, a pair of Townsend’s Warblers, a Hammond’s Flycatcher, and a beautiful male Hepatic Tanager, but although we searched for four and a half hours the Sinaloa Wren never made an appearance this day. We spent some time in the afternoon just driving through promising habitat hoping to come across some Montezuma Quail somewhere – now the last remaining target species for the trip – but alas no quail.
After overnight at the Comfort Inn (very nice) back in Green Valley, we spent Saturday morning (Jan. 23) hiking up lower Florida Canyon where we found Black-capped Gnatcatcher easily enough but managed to miss the known pair of Rufous-capped Warblers. These are two more Mexican species uncommon in the US, but I had seen both of them before. Because Long-eared Owl would also be a life bird for Matt, we returned to the owl site where it did take some time, but we split up and in the end each managed to come across a group of Long-eared Owls though today they were not readily photographable.
With just Montezuma Quail left to find, we devoted the rest of the day concentrating along Ruby Road on the way to Pena Blanca SP. The Pena Blanca Canyon Road (best to have a four-wheel drive, high ground-clearance vehicle like Matt’s) has some of the most promising habitat in the entire area for quail. We would stop the car periodically and listen quietly in the dead silence for any rustling of leaves. At the third such stop Matt suddenly grabbed my elbow, pointed to the base of a tree on his side of the car and whispered “start shooting – NOW.” And there they were – Montezuma Quail, perhaps seven – sidling nearly invisibly through the tall grass until two emerged and one paused ever so briefly in the open. Then just as suddenly as they had silently emerged, they melted back into their surroundings and disappeared. They are such will-o-the-wisps, so perfectly camouflaged and in view so fleetingly, that without a photo one might later wonder if they had only been imagined. Trip life bird no. 7.
After a final overnight in Green Valley, I spent the morning back at Catalina SP trying to get some better photos of the Rufous-capped Robin, but it was Sunday and the park was crowded with people, many with dogs, and even some people on horseback – hardly ideal conditions for bird photography. A few other people and I did briefly spot the robin in the tall grass a few times, but no photos were possible today, and by 1 PM it was time to head for the airport. The seven newly photographed ABA species bring the total for birdspix.com up to 715.