Birding along the I-19 Corridor, south of Tucson; Pima and Santa Cruz Counties, Arizona

Sunday, August 13th
Summer birding in Arizona plays havoc with my sleep patterns! When daylight begins at 5 a.m., the alarm is often set for 2:30 or 3:00 in order to wake up sufficiently to get out the door with my gear and drive to a specific birder meeting place to continue on to a distant location.  

The sun is now rising later, but the drive will be long. After planning my little excursion to see three specific birds, I contacted Hinde Silver to see if she had a free day to join me. She was up for it, so I picked her up at 4:15 a.m. despite the continuing drizzle of rain. This summer’s monsoon has behaved as I always expected it would - but never did. Instead of many rainy days, most of the past summers’ years have been full of dust storms in the Phoenix area so great they make the national news: Wave of Dust One Mile High and Five Miles Wide! They’re called: DRY MONSOONS. This year: WET MONSOON! Lots and lots of rainy days —very unusual here in the desert.

Monsoon’s heavy rains
Too much for roadway storm drains
Cars not in their lanes

Heading to the I-19 corridor south of Tucson, I hoped we could drive out of the dark clouds and rain. It didn’t clear until we reached Tucson but then, as the sun rose, we could see white clouds and glimpses of clear sky ahead.

I tend to look for birds that can be found seasonally and that I particularly like. Without success, I had already searched known locations in the Phoenix West Valley for the Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and the Tempe Town Lake for the Brown Pelican that had taken up residence there the past couple years. With both being reported at the Amado Water Treatment Ponds, that was our first stop at 6:50 a.m.

The BROWN PELICAN was easy to see perched out on one of the mechanisms in the water.

BROWN PELICAN
It also lifted and flew around a couple times prior to returning to its “spot”.




Since the ducks I wanted to see were not on the water, I set up the spotting scope to search for the BLACK-BELLIED WHISTLING DUCKs that had been reported there - with young. (Less chance of them leaving the area before I arrived!)

And, there they were-all the way across the pond! Two adults and a couple young at water’s edge on a bit of mud and stones in front of the reeds.

BLACK-BELLIED WHISTLING DUCKS (above and below)

Then, it was on to Montosa Canyon farther north off of I-19 where we picked up Mt. Hopkins Road, following it past the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory base camp buildings to the dirt road leading into another rich birding area.

Normally, the Mexican Five-striped Sparrow is usually found in one spot way south toward the border in California Gulch or other canyons there. This year they seemed to be found at the confluence of the gulch with Warsaw Canyon — all of which requires very high clearance four-wheel drive vehicles.

The first time I saw this bird was in 2014 on a Melody Kehl guided trip into California Gulch - a bone jarring ride over rocks called a road. Being Melody’s last trip into the Gulch that year, she knew the birds would be harder to see but told us she had never “dipped” on them. This particular late afternoon trip stretched into evening as we could hear the birds skulking around thick shrubs. Finally, a few other species began to perch up and sing and then, the FIVE-STRIPED SPARROW did likewise. It was a quick look before the bird dove down into the shrubs again, but enough to call it a LIFE BIRD, despite it being an unsatisfactory view (for me).

Today, I hoped to see my second such Mexican bird that was being reported in various locations farther north (like Montosa Canyon and Box Canyon) where ordinary birders could drive. Possibly, our very wet monsoon (with water and more shrubs) has enabled them to come north.

Other birders were present when we arrived and told us where they had seen the bird and where they were presently looking. We didn’t see IT, but did see lots of other good birds. After checking out - without success - the specific locations these other birders had first seen it, Hinde and I just wandered up the main dirt road listening…listening. 

Rarely do I use feedback these days, but to make sure I knew the song I was listening for, I played it briefly. Then waited…waited....nothing. As we turned to walk back toward the car, I couldn’t believe my eyes.

The FIVE-STRIPED SPARROW had flown in and perched on a bare limb of a dead shrub behind us where it sat quietly looking right back at us!

It provided us ample viewing over the next several minutes. I took photos; we watched it preen; we watched it turn this way and that. NOW, with this, just my second time seeing this stealthy Mexican bird, I was overjoyed with the looks it gave. Five photos of the FIVE-STRIPED SPARROW below:


Preening its toe



It had been three years since I had re-visited Montosa Canyon after a “lost and found” incident that just a few of my birding friends know about. The incident made us cancel our first-scheduled trip with Melody Kehl for this bird so we had caught her final trip into California Gulch that year. Today, with such great looks at the FIVE-STRIPED SPARROW, I felt a poetic resonance. It also felt good to bird this area again.

After about an hour watching hummingbirds and others at the Santa Rita Lodge feeding station, Hinde and I headed back home as dark clouds began to gather down south. Nice and toasty under the desert sun when we returned home.

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View this checklist online at http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S38630875



East-coast Shorebirds in Phoenix West Valley, Maricopa County, Arizona

Glendale Recharge Ponds, Glendale, AZ
August 4 & 10, 2017




With the desert heat cranking up a bit again, I needed some good birds to flavor my day. What better place to visit than a spot where two east-coast favorites somehow showed up in the past week — Glendale Recharge Ponds.

Marsha joined me for my first drive across Phoenix from the East Valley where we arrived at the ponds and began birding by 6 a.m. Although the early morning felt comfortable, temperatures have a way of riding up quickly in the desert. 

The first eastern shorebird to arrive at the ponds was the TRI-COLORED HERON, the same species that had flown into the Gilbert Water Ranch ponds last year. Although it wasn’t in its last-reported location, another birder, Jeff Ritz, had watched it fly from Pond #1 where we started looking for it, so he quickly pedaled his bike back to let us know it was on Pond #3. 

Not wanting to spook the TRI-COLORED HERON, we took photos from a distant corner. The long-slender-necked heron was perched on a smooth rounded light rock where it was busy preening. For me, clear photos were tough to come by so I’m posting Marsha’s that were somewhat better. (We don’t carry big cameras.)

The bird was an adult in mating plumage evidenced by its white head plume and the pale golden plumes on its rump. For me, the question becomes: How did it come to this pond? Was it blown off course? Did it just know it needed more food to complete its migration?  Generally, the TRI-COLORED HERON is found along the Atlantic seaboard, but does wander northward and inland and will forage on inland lakes and freshwater marshes just about anywhere. So, we were lucky today! Will it stay?

Tri-colored Heron [Photo by Marsha Wiles]

Adult Tri-colored Heron with white head plume and golden rump feathers  [Photo by Marsha Wiles]
After feasting at the Glendale Ponds for several days, the TRI-COLORED HERON would fly off to other unknown places but would occasionally return.

On my second visit to the ponds about a week later (8/10), it wasn’t there but had shown up the previous day when many birders descended to see the REDDISH EGRET that had also come in to Glendale’s Pond #4. Since its habitat is almost always in coastal areas (tidal flats, lagoons) and rarely inland or in fresh water, this seemed like a more important find.

Eagerly, I headed out pre-comuter traffic and arrived at the ponds while it was still mostly dark (5-ish). I set up my spotting scope and scanned Pond #4 with binoculars testing my ability to discern silhouettes. At least five GREEN HERONs were hugging the shore closest to me but not yet moving. GREAT BLUE HERONs were scattered throughout the pond (unless they were white egrets looking black in the still-darkness).

I thought (correctly, as it turned out) that the sought-after bird (REDDISH EGRET) was located, more or less, in the SE corner of Pond 4.  I also thought the TRI-COLORED may have been in the NW corner, but Jeff Ritz who was sitting along the eastern edge of the pond (not visible until dawn arrived), told me it was a GREAT BLUE, one that had flown off.

Dawn seemed to signal the GREAT BLUEs and the GREEN HERONs to lift off to fly to their preferred breakfast buffets but the REDDISH EGRET stayed among the GREAT and SNOWY EGRETs in the SE corner.

As you can see in the photos below, the REDDISH EGRET is bigger than the SNOWYs, but smaller than the GREAT EGRET.  Many birders were calling it a juvenile bird, but the distinctly bicolored bill (pink with black tip) is an ID marker for adults in breeding plumage. What was missing was its remaining shaggy neck feathers that I associate with having seen this bird on the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. No expert, I don’t need to call its age but would guess it’s intermediate between first-year and adulthood. Below (and lead-in photo) are all of the REDDISH EGRET.

REDDISH EGRET

REDDISH EGRET with SNOWY EGRETs
REDDISH EGRET with SNOWY EGRETs

REDDISH EGRET beside a GREAT EGRET

The ponds were full of birds, including a CASPIAN TERN in our desert waters.



CASPIAN TERN background; BLACK-NECKED STILTs foreground

NEO-TROPIC CORMORANTS
WHITE-FACED IBIS
Same WHITE-FACED IBIS lifting their heads out of the water
Staying out there at the six open ponds with no shade is a challenge, but I lasted three hours while I scoped the smaller waders and sandpipers. While I got a good scope view of the PECTORAL SANDPIPER, it was too distant for photos. It appeared to be an adult bird (approx. 9"), with greenish legs and close streaking on the nape, throat and breast reaching down to the belly where the stripes stop precisely and cleanly.

As if my day had not already been full of a nice variety of birds, as I placed my gear into the trunk of my car, a male LAZULI BUNTING flew past with sunshine lighting up its special color of new blue feathers!  What a day!

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Las Cienegas National Conservation Area & Sierra Vista, Pima and Cochise Counties, AZ


Thursday/Friday July 27 & 28, 2017
Driving 180 miles to see some sparrows? Yes, but these weren’t just ordinary sparrows, they were “monsoon” sparrows that come to southern Arizona to breed during the summer months. Need to go when the males of one species arrive and begin to sing or do their flight displays…a miniature version of a Eurasian Skylark.

Sue Moreland joined in for the fun. With an early start from Phoenix, we started listening for sparrows at 7:30 a.m. in the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area near Sonoita, off of SR 83.  

Under cloud cover, we stopped within 100 yards of the entrance to listen to BOTTERI’S SPARROW singing on the north side of the road. Since we were barely into the grasslands, I drove a bit farther before stopping but this was way prior to the signage for the area. One was at the top of a mesquite singing; we both knew its song that wraps up with a bouncing-ball trill. 

BOTTERI'S SPARROW, slight rufous on top of wing, larger grayer bill than Cassin's Sparrow

There’s another sparrow that arrives with the monsoon, but it was quiet. In the deep grass across from the Botteri’s Sparrows, small birds apparently were foraging and running like mice through the grass, too thick to find. We knew what they might be…but didn’t want to go tromping through their territory, so moved on with the car.

CASSIN’S KINGBIRDS were perched in the mesquites, flying out to grab insects (some big like dragonflies) and returning to its perch to eat.

Several EASTERN MEADOWLARKS (Lilian’s subspecies) were singing from perches on shrubs or the scrubby mesquites.

Two LOGGERHEAD SHRIKES were hunting from an overhead utility line. I haven’t seen many of them this year, so that felt like a very good sighting, too.

Seldom can we enjoy a lot of bird activity without a hawk showing up. Sue spotted the SHARP-SHINNED HAWK. I caught its gray under color (making it a juvenile). 

Before reaching the turnoff for the Empire Ranch property, we began to hear the CASSIN’S SPARROWS singing on the south side of the dirt road. For some reason, I really like this bird. Maybe it’s the song that enables me to ID it. It starts out with some clear whistles, then brief ‘song’ that ends with two low notes. If it sings without including those two low notes, I’d never recognize it, since I see it only about once a year. To me, those two low notes = “10/4” = or “over and out” or “the end”. 

Fortunately, it was singing that song from the top of a short shrub, then flying up into the air about six feet, before fluttering down to land on another shrub about ten feet from where it started. Others, farther out in the grasslands were doing likewise, so we heard more and more male CASSIN’S SPARROWs beginning their flight displays. 

Rapt with enjoyment, we watched for quite some time. Photos can’t capture the feelings of the moment and, in this case, I did a poor job of even photographing the small birds,that were quite distant, hidden in shrubs, perched briefly in the open, or up in the air with their flight display.

CASSIN'S SPARROW, shorter pointy bill (than Botteri's), faint eye ring
Since we planned to drive all the way through Las Cienegas to exit at the South entrance, we didn’t take time to visit Empire Ranch. The action, for me, was in the grasslands and I wanted to spend as much time out there as possible. An hour and a half had already disppeared!

Sue was finding birds, too.  After turning away from the north entrance and heading south, she spotted LARK SPARROWs in the road that flew to nearby shrubs.  

The turn-off to see the Black-tailed Prairie Dogs (released into this area) was quite muddy, so we continued on the main road that was passable in my little sedan. But we stopped long enough to get our binoculars on the site where Sue counted nine (9) of them up and out in the open.

A SWAINSON’S HAWK flew overhead. Again, that’s not a common bird in the east Phoenix area, so I’m always excited to see them.

SWAINSON'S HAWK (from my file; sky very dark with clouds today)

There were more BOTTERI’S and CASSIN’S SPARROWs singing away. 

And now! We heard numerous GRASSHOPPER SPARROWs.  My identification problem with them is how do you know if an insect is calling from within the tall grasses?  Or, whether it’s the sparrow.

It helps when that flat-headed bird finds a low branch to sing its very buzzy song.

GRASSHOPPER SPARROW
At the very full ponds (tank), we spotted a GREAT EGRET, SUMMER TANAGER, male and female VERMILION FLYCATCHER, and a BROWN-CRESTED FLYCATCHER.

GREAT EGRET
VERMILION FLYCATCHER
Sue, leading on the trail into Sacaton Flats with its special grass

After spending four hours at the beautiful grasslands of Las Cienegas, we reached the South Entrance and exited onto SR 82. Our stomachs knew it was going on lunch time.  So, when we arrived at San Pedro House in Sierra Vista, we took immediate advantage of their picnic ramada to eat lunch while enjoying BLUE GROSBEAK, PYRRHULOXIA, and the calls of WHITE-WINGED and INCA DOVEs.

On our brief walk to the San Pedro River, we spotted a couple flycatchers (ASH-THROATED & BROWN CRESTED) along with a flock of BARN SWALLOWs. But our visit was cut short by lightening and thunder. We had seen the storm cloud dropping lots of rain south of us (Bisbee?) and it was quickly moving its water-laden darkness our way.  

Our next planned stop at Ash Canyon B&B appeared to be relatively storm-cloud free, although the city itself was under cloud cover. So, we wrapped up our afternoon there (2 hours) watching a variety of hummingbirds.


ANNA'S HUMMINGBIRD (male and female)
BLACK-CHINNED HUMMINGBIRD (facing)

RUFOUS HUMMINGBIRD (female)
Missing is the photo of our target bird: LUCIFER HUMMINGBIRD that came to Feeder #1 four times between 3:25 & 3:40 p.m. where it stayed for long periods of time. Would have been perfect for a photo if it hadn't been all the way across the feeder circle away from me! Enjoyed watching it for such long periods of time and am posting photos from previous years' visits to this same bird-friendly area (for birds and humans) where this particular hummingbird returns each year.

LUCIFER HUMMINGBIRD (file photo from last year)
Next stop was Ramsey Canyon where we stayed at Sue's sister and brother-in-law's house for the night (Terri & Scott). Their big patio is also full of hummingbird and other bird feeders so we continued birding there listening to approaching thundershowers. A streak of lightening followed by an immediate clap of thunder sent Sue and I running for the house, dinner in hand!

The next morning, we walked from the house up to the Nature Conservancy Preserve in Ramsey Canyon, then on up and around Bledsoe Loop. All of that took about 3.5 hours (covering 2.2 miles) finding good birds along the way. Having lost interest in trying to get good photos (especially in the forest), it was fun to watch behaviors of the SULPHUR-BELLIED FLYCATCHERs, paired up and chasing around; the WESTERN WOOD-PEWEEs perched up and singing plus one going to and from a nest; the many BRIDLED TITMICE at the cherry tree; the HUTTON'S VIREO with its one-note song; plus an ARIZONA WOODPECKER and a ZONE-TAILED HAWK. 

Terri had a late breakfast of delicious quiche waiting for us back at the house. We called it lunch and headed on to our next target bird in St. David. Terri and Scott's hospitality had been wonderful; a delightful visit.

Now, could we find the MISSISSIPPI KITE that visits St. David just about every year in the summer months?  It would be a Life Bird for Sue; and I just like to see it but it's not the easiest bird to find. Mostly, it seems like happenstance. So we drove around on the known roads to find it (Golden Bell and Miller). Heard it on Miller but it was in a densely leafed-out tree on private property. After spending well over an hour searching for it, we concluded we'd cut our losses, drive back up to Rt. 80, where I slowly made our way through St. David. Seeing quite a back-up of traffic behind me, I pulled over at Dragoon Vista. Looking up yet again, what did we see but a MISSISSIPPI KITE giving chase to a Turkey Vulture. Yay!  Sue was ecstatic!  And, so was I at that point!!

MISSISSIPPI KITE (last year's photo from St.David)

Nothing like a solid birding adventure (86 species) in Southeastern Arizona where the temperature never rose higher than the low 80s.


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View this checklist online at http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S38376303

View this checklist online at http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S38376393



View this checklist online at http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S38377031













Santa Cruz Flats, Pinal County, AZ


Thursday, July 20, 2017
Desert birding in our summer months calls for early rising. Usually, I look for shady (using the term loosely) locations, but today, it was a potential beast: Santa Cruz Flats, extending south of Eloy all the way to the Santa Cruz River — a great expanse of open land between the Sawtooth Mountains (west) and Picacho Peak (east).

Who would even think of going out there in mid-July?? Well, Dr. Dave Pearson (ASU) noticed it was an under-birded area and when he discovered 44 TROPICAL KINGBIRDS (or more) in early June, he decided to follow up to discover if there might be fledglings. Lois Lorenz, Kathe Anderson and I joined him on his search.

Did I mention the active monsoon season we’ve been enjoying? Not only does it bring humidity, but this year, lots of thundershowers and extended rainfall. With only a few paved roads through the Flats, the dusty dirt roads might just be a slip and slide mud experience. So, I was thinking the trip might be short-lived.

Stopping first at Arizona City Lake, we began our bird count for the day with thirty-one (31) waterfowl and desert species in half an hour (5:30-6:00 a.m.)

Although we had rain the previous night in the East Valley (Phoenix), the dirt roads within the Flats were dry — but not dusty. Sweet! Not even mud puddles!

SWAINSON’S HAWK (9), both adult and immature, at various locations, often perched in the fields. This immature was really far out in the field but still easier for me to try to photograph than one flying overhead.


We saw more BLUE GROSBEAK on overhead wires than in trees or on the ground.
BLUE GROSBEAK
In the most arid areas, we had some good desert birds including GREATER ROADRUNNER, BELL'S VIREO, BLACK-TAILED GNATCATCHER, and LUCY'S WARBLER.
LUCY'S WARBLER
Along with the usual assortment of blackbirds (GREAT-TAILED GRACKLE, BROWN-HEADED COWBIRD, RED-WINGED and YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRDS), a BULLOCK'S and HOODED ORIOLE were present.
In six hours of birding, I need not list each bird we spotted, but the BURROWING OWLs always steal the show.



Our main purpose at the Flats was to determine if the TROPICAL KINGBIRDs had fledged any young. This is a bit farther north than TRKI are usually found and to be in such great numbers is mind-boggling. I'm lucky if I find one or two per year in the southern areas of the state.

What we found was that the TROPICAL KINGBIRD (24 counted) has a nifty song (trill) and a trill of a call, too. When we came upon its trees, one would fly out and over us before circling back down into the leafy pecan trees (on various roads). So, we could surmise that nesting was ongoing. The trill is short, sweet and catchy.

TROPICAL KINGBIRD
Note its gray head; pale throat and cheek. Upper breast is actually olive but sunlight is washing it out as it fades into yellow on the rest of its underparts. Wings and tail are brownish black with thin whitish edges on the tail feathers. Tail is slightly notched, not squared as in Western Kingbird. And, look at the size of the bill!  It is longer than or equal to its lore+eye. In Western Kingbird, the size of the bill is the size of the lore. And, not seen in the photo, the back of the TRKI is grayish washed with olive-green, not the pale gray back of the Western.

The bird sets itself apart from the WESTERN KINGBIRDs (18) both by song and by appearance.

WESTERN KINGBIRD - with wide white outer tail feathers
Another bird had us scratching our heads. The CLIFF SWALLOW. We've all seen CLIFF SWALLOWs that nest under bridges and fly out over bodies of water or fields with insects. But CLIFF SWALLOWs foraging on the turf of the various turf farms within the Flats? Interesting! 
Series of 3 photos of CLIFF SWALLOWS foraging at the Turf Farms



Dr. Pearson provided a conservative estimate for eBird of 2500 CLIFF SWALLOW.

Not only was it a day to remember with our 66 species count for the day, (4 separate eBird locations), it begged to be repeated. Will the nesting TROPICAL KINGBIRDS have young by next week?  Or, later?  Generally, the species migrates out of southern Arizona by the end of July up until September, so there is still time to check out the TRKI again before they take off for the more southern Americas.


R-L: Dave Pearson, Lois Lorenz and Kathe Anderson


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