Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Birding Arizona: Sabino Canyon and Saguaro National Park (East)

As I was planning this trip to Arizona it occurred to me that I know a lot of people who live there, all of them transplants from some other place, and many of them in the Tucson area. I wasn't going to have time to see them all but we planned Friday as a meet up day with a few of them. 

In the morning I met Jennie Duberstein, a fabulous birder and someone I met at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival when I got roped in to utterly humiliating myself in a birding "game show" for the American Birding Association's 50th Anniversary edition of their podcast. Jennie was gracious and did her best NOT to wipe the floor with me (then went on to win the thing). Anyway, I had not seen her since then (November of 2019) so we met up at Sabino Canyon for a morning walk and some birding. 

You just might get tired of pictures of saguaro cactus by the time I'm done with series. I don't care.

I think we spent more time chatting than birding but we did get so see some really cool things, like this roadrunner with a lizard. The backlighting was intense but I got a few shots off before it moved behind a shrub and fed the lizard to its little one. I missed the exchange thanks to said shrub but Jennie got to watch it. Then another baby popped out into the open a bit farther away and I got a few more shots. Turns out this would be the only roadrunner I saw the whole trip but I've got some good material for a new piece here.


Roadrunner with breakfast for junior.

Junior #2

There were many cactus wren about and we found one gathering insects, indicating it too had young to feed. 

Cactus wren with juicy bits.

We watched where it went and found its nest in a cholla right next to the trail.

Cactus wren nest in a cholla. The dark spot in the center is the entrance hole.

After an hour or so we went back to the parking lot and met David Amamoto, a Michigan birder whom I had met last year during my Michigan Big Year, who happened to be in Arizona birding many of the same places I was headed. He and Jennie had gone to the same Pittsburg-area school, but about 15 years apart.

We walked down to the dam, which is little more than a rock wall where Sabino Creek (the same creek that flows through Summerhaven in the Santa Catalina Mountains) flows over into a couple of shallow basins. On the way we crossed paths with a family of black-throated sparrows. 

Black-throated sparrows.

It wasn't particularly hot this day (highs forecast around 80°) but the sun was hot and I was, by now, somewhat overdressed. I got down on one knee and splashed cool mountain water on my face and wet down my hair.

Pools along Sabino Creek

On the way back we found a few cactus in bloom.

Pinkflower hedgehog cactus, about 8" tall and growing in the shade of another cactus

We took the obligatory selfie to commemorate the day.


I drove back to Marcy's to pick up the girls so we could head to Saguaro NP to meet our friend Martha who was driving down from Phoenix to meet us. I had time to chase a couple birds around her back yard, including lesser goldfinch, a bird I had seen previously but never photographed...

Lesser goldfinch

...and phainopepla, which I only had poor images of.

Phainopepla. Still not great images as back-lit black
birds are super hard to shoot.

We packed a picnic lunch and made the short drive to Saguaro NP. It was a glorious day, warm but not hot, with a stiff breeze and, for the first time since arriving in Arizona, clouds.

The desert is assumed by many to be a lifeless sandbox, and we drove through some places in this drought-stricken region that certainly felt that way (especially in New Mexico), but the reality is much, much different. The desert (this is the Sonoran) is full of life. One of my favorite plants was the ocotillo (pronounced oco-tee-yo), a spindly, thorny plant with bright red blooms bobbing at the ends of the tall stalks.

Name-sake saguaros dotted the landscape. The east unit of Saguaro NP lies just to the west of the Rincon Mountains, another of the Madrean Sky Islands. There are several picnic areas within both units and we found ourselves a covered table and had a feast.

The inner structure of a long-dead prickly pear cactus

While we sat and chatted birds moved around us. I've often said that the best way to see birds is to find a spot where you know there are some around and just sit and be still. They will come to you. We had a pair of canyon towhee pop in and out of the shrubs, picking bits off the ground as sparrows do.

Canyon Towhee, life bird #582

A cactus wren flitted through an ocotillo...

...and a curve-billed thrasher came around several times to check on us.

Another cactus wren nest tucked into a saguaro.

As the day slipped into evening it was time to pack up and head out, but Martha suggested we do the auto loop before heading out. I'm so glad we did. We had not really spent time at sunset out in the desert and it was something to see.

As we crept along Lori, from the back seat, called out "owl!" and I hit the brakes. Sure enough, perched on top of a saguaro, was a great horned owl. Holy smokes.

There was still a pretty stiff wind from the SW and we watched in amazement as the owl launched itself off the cactus and into the wind and hovered, watching for prey below. None of us had ever seen this behavior before.

It was a good day.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Madera Canyon and the Santa Rita Mountains, Arizona

There are as many ways to bird as there are birders. You can study and learn songs and locations and target particular species. You can go to one location and sit and be still and wait to see what comes along. You can bounce from place to place in an attempt to see as many species as possible. You can stay home and birdwatch at your feeders or you can drive across the country in search for something new. I have, as I assume most birding "listers" have, done all of those things at one time or another. Pretty much every morning I sit and count the birds at my feeders. I've chased rarities all over the state of Michigan. I've traveled long distances to see new species (and new places) and I am blessed to be able to do so.

Generally speaking our vacations are not relaxing affairs where we go hole up on some beach or mountain cabin and chill and read for a week. No, we are more explorer-minded, and are busy every day we're away--you know, those folks that need a vacation from their vacation. And none of our trips is truly a vacation anyway--we are constantly gathering information and images to use in our work. 

This trip to Arizona was no exception. Since we had never been to the state before my list of "lifer" birds was enormous--counting rarities and sub-species it topped 130--so I didn't really have particular target birds I needed to see. Pretty much every bird in Arizona was a target, so we planned trips to certain locations that were particularly "birdy" or had other interesting things like unique plants or habitats.

Madera Canyon falls squarely into the "particularly birdy" category. Situated on the northwest side of the Santa Rita mountains about 25 miles south of Tucson it holds the third highest species count in Arizona. Desert scrub in the lower and upper Sonoran zones transitions to grasslands to woodlands all the way to up to the Canadian zone at the highest elevations, where one can find Douglas fir and aspen. It snows here in winter, and the canyon features a riparian zone where water flows for much of the year, a rarity in this part of the world. There is also the Santa Rita Lodge where one is invited to sit and watch their feeders for hummingbirds and other SE Arizona specialties, and, further up the canyon, the much sought-after elegant trogon, a Mexican and Central American species that pushes up into the southern-most portions of the Madrean Sky Islands.

The first order of business on day two, however, was to get out into Marcy's neighborhood and photograph the species I'd seen the day before. I find that, generally speaking, city birds are easier to capture as they are more accustomed to us and tolerate our nearness. At the end of her driveway I followed a small group of Lucy's warblers and got a few decent images. This is perhaps the most plain of our North American warblers but it has a beautiful song.

Lucy's Warbler, life bird #557
Gamble's quail were all over, calling from every nook and cranny. They were like wild chickens roaming the neighborhood. This couple seemed to have territory at the neighbor's house. I'd seen the similar California quail in Utah but could never get this close. I saw the pair and just stopped in road and waited, and the male practically walked up to me. Adorable little things!

Gamble's quail cock, life bird #562

Gamble's quail hen. I want to pinch her little cheeks.

We also encountered a lot of desert cottontails who seemed quite tame.

Out on the street I was able to put the sun behind me and finally get some well-lit images. This verdin posed nicely in a mesquite. I'd seen this bird several years prior but for literally 2 seconds, never having a chance at photos. This was a common species in the lower elevations.

Verdin in a blooming mesquite tree.

Rufous-winged sparrows are referred to as the "chipping sparrow of the west," being nearly as ubiquitous and similar in appearance.

Rufous-winged sparrow, life bird #558

The cactus were just starting to bud and bloom. While we were a bit early for the main event we did eventually find some in bloom.

Pricklypear cactus, probably Engleman's

The mesquite trees can grow quite large--up to 50 feet--and are an important plant for people and wildlife. They provide shelter from the hot sun, nectar when in bloom, food in the form of seeds and the insects that are gleaned from its leaves. The wood is exceptionally hard and is used for cooking, fence posts, and tool handles. It's in the legume family so makes pods that are edible and can be ground down into a flour.

We got a bit of a late start on our drive to Madera. Everyone was still tired from the previous day's adventure and we hadn't had time to recover from our three-day haul across the country. By the time we reached the grasslands it was already hot (the high in Tucson was forecast for the mid-90s again) and there wasn't much going on. In these lower elevations you've gotta bird early or late in order to get the birds when they're most active.

We stopped at several locations before heading up into the mountains. I picked up a Cassin's vireo at the Proctor Road hotspot, then we stopped for lunch at the Madera Picnic Area, where I finally got some photos of the Mexican jay.

We had just started eating when I saw a painted redstart nearby so I grabbed my camera and tried for some better photos. There was a small group of people about 100 feet away who were clearly birders so I called out to let them know. A man and woman came over but by the time they got to us the bird was gone. The lady left but the man ambled over to the picnic table and proceeded to mansplain birding to us. He was clearly one of these dudes who likes to hear himself talk and wanted to help out the little ladies. He commenced to explain to us that there are many smart phone apps that aid with bird identification blah blah blah. Now mind you this is after I've just called out a species, and I am dressed in my birding "uniform," complete with my Tilly hat adorned with bird pins. 

I was annoyed and kept turning my back on him but Marcy, who is a local, had to be a bit more gracious. Turns out he too lives in Tucson and is an active birder. After at least 15 minutes he askes, quite casually, if we've been enjoying the owls. Now, he saw us roll in and sit down to lunch so knows damn well that we haven't looked at any owls. Turns out that group nearby was watching a pair of Northern pygmy owls that live there at the picnic area. I grabbed my camera and left.

Northern pygmy owl with lizard. Life bird #574

There was indeed a pair but only one was out in the open and easy to photograph. Note the dark "eye" spots on the back of it's head. This is to confuse predators that might want to make a meal of this relatively small owl.

From the picnic area we drove a short distance to the Santa Rita Lodge. This is a must-stop location if you are birding in the region. They offer lodging but also allow visitors to come sit and watch the feeders (asking for a 30 minute maximum for parking). There's no charge to use the facility so we bought a few things in the gift shop and watched all manner of hummingbirds vie for the best spots at the feeders.

Feeders and viewing area at Santa Rita lodge.

Perhaps the most common hummingbird in the region is the broad-billed, and what a stunner this bird is. It was easy to overlook them, they were so common. After a while we'd catch ourselves sayin "oh, it's just another broad-billed."

Broad-billed hummingbird. I'd seen my first in Marcy's neighborhood, so life bird #561

Black-chinned hummingbirds were also fairly common. This bird most closely resembles our only eastern species, the ruby-throated. I was never able to get a good look at him with his gorget in the sun, but it is a deep purple/indigo. 

Black-chinned hummingbird

Because we had Bailey, the girls took turns hanging back by the road. Good thing, because Lisa found a pair of bridled titmice working over an oak. 

Bridled titmouse, life bird #577

Back at the feeders we finally were treated to another hummingbird species, the very large Rivoli's (formerly the magnificent) hummingbird. At five inches long it is a bruiser among hummers (the black-chinned is 3.5"). The bright sun made photographing these birds a challenge.

Rivoli's hummingbird, life bird #580

I managed to miss a Scott's oriole that was hanging around at the edges of things, but I did add Arizona woodpecker, black-headed grosbeak, and hepatic tanager to my list. 

Arizona woodpecker, life bird #578

Hepatic tanager, life bird #576

Black-headed grosbeak, life bird #575

We left the lodge and holed up at the amphitheater for an hour or so. It was 3:00 in the afternoon, a terrible time to go birding. We were ultimately headed to the end of the road and a hike up the mountain in search of an elegant trogon, but decided to take a break and wait until later in the afternoon. It was so pleasant in the mountains, warm but not hot, and the sun shone through oaks and sycamores along the creek. We chased a few birds around, and had this gorgeous grey hawk circle overhead a few times, but mostly we sat with our boots off and enjoyed the quiet.

Gray hawk.

We eventually made our way to the upper parking area and the trailhead. We carried water and hiking poles and optics and hiked up the mountain. We talked to a few people who had either heard the trogon themselves or who had talked to others who had heard/seen them. We reached the spot where they had been most active but it was quiet. Lisa and I pushed farther up the Carrie Nation trail to where it crosses the creek, leaving Lori (and her new knees) to keep watch. 

We ended up dipping on the trogon (wouldn't be the first time) but it was such a gorgeous day that we hardly noticed.

Lori enjoyed being able to walk again.

Water in the creek was intermittent. Sometimes it was on the surface, sometimes underground. The sound of it was welcome and magical in this arid, drought-ridden region.

We left the Santa Ritas without a trogon but we would have other chances. We arrived back in town for a late dinner (this became a theme) and headed to bed. Arizona doesn't do Daylight Saving Time so they are essentially on Pacific time in the summer. This means an early sunrise (pre-6:00 am) and an early sunset (7:00 pm) in mid-April. That's a strange thing for us, where the sun is setting well after 8:00 pm this time of year.

Day three (April 22nd) would be more about connecting with old friends than about birds, but there was still plenty of amazing things to see.  That's coming up next.