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.

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