Peña Blanca Lake and Patagonia, Santa Cruz County, AZ

February 7 & 8, 2015
Just a few years ago, I started birding seriously.  For several hours almost every day of the week, I was out in the field getting better acquainted with local birds.  Birds have wings, so I could return to the same location every two or three weeks and find, perhaps, an additional bird or two or three that came to visit for awhile.  An influx of migrant birds, in spring and fall, were not only an identification challenge, they really got me stoked.   From beautiful fresh plumage to drab worn feathers, the very same bird could be an ID challenge.  It looks like a lifetime of deep learning lies ahead of me! 

I also met other birders, some of whom had sufficient time and interest to hook up for local or distant trips. It was with some of these friends, I headed south from the Phoenix Valley very early Saturday morning to reach Peña Blanca Lake, almost to the Mexican border, by 8:45 a.m.

We didn’t want to miss this exceptional opportunity to see a very rare visitor from Mexico -- the Rufous-capped Warbler - a small (5.25”) bird with gorgeous head coloring and bright yellow throat and breast.  Research on e-Bird provided good information on where other birders had seen it at the Lake.  So, we followed the trail to the south cove where we took note of other birds as we hiked down to water’s edge.  Just before we reached the south end of the cove, Susan spotted the bird flitting actively in some dead reeds, some standing, some fallen into a mound in the water.  And there it was!   Look closely, as we did.  You'll see it!

Rufous-capped Warbler

Setting out to see a specific bird does not always end successfully, but in this case, I had rolled out of bed at 3:00 a.m., met my birding friends with whom I traveled 140 miles to see this Rufous-capped Warbler, and an hour after arriving, I was looking at it!
Such a thrill! Having seen this species only once before and briefly in Montosa Canyon (8/5/13), I took the time to observe the bird for a full minute before I started trying to take a picture of it in action.  It was gleaning from the reeds and did not sit still, but paused occasionally.  Luck was with me to get even the above small photo. As we left the parking lot at the lake, this Arizona Coues deer reached the ridge beside us.

With other rarities beckoning, it was time to move on.  
We met fellow birder, Larry Morgan, the resident caretaker of Tucson Audubon’s Paton House in Patagonia, who had agreed to join us for the remainder of the day. Our first stop was Patagonia Lake State Park.  Weather was clear with a blue sunny sky at 68ᴼ F.
I can’t say enough about having Larry guide us on the Birding Trail, from beginning to end, including the very damp Nutting’s Wash.  He knew the Eastern Phoebe’s territory and he knew where to search for the Elegant Trogon.  We birded over two hours along the trail finding all sorts of good birds such as the Eastern Phoebe, Hammond’s and Gray flycatchers; Black-throated Gray Warbler and a less-than-common Rufous-crowned Sparrow.  Although we never even heard the trogon’s bark, we definitely had fun during the full four-mile walk.

Susan and Larry
Black-throated Gray Warbler (fuzzy post)
Trail in Nutting's Wash
Waterfall along full-flowing Sonoita Creek!
No birding visit to Patagonia is complete without stopping at the Nature Conservancy's  Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve.  Susan had been there three times in recent months in search of the Rufous-backed Robin seen off and on there over that period of time.  Larry, having led a bird walk there yesterday, knew where it was then, so we birded our way to the Spring Trail and looked and looked.    
No surprise, it was Susan who spotted it first!  As we all focused our binoculars on the bird -- looking almost orange-backed in the sunlight -- other birders hoping to see it, also enjoyed our good fortune.  Another hour had passed so the day was quickly slipping away from us.

On our way to the Stage Stop Inn, we dropped Larry at the Paton House.  Susan parked her Pathfinder directly in front of the Inn.  A group of birders had binoculars trained on the tops of trees in the City Park directly across the street.  We knew a rare Yellow-throated Warbler had been spotted there and hoped to see it ourselves, but, for some unknown reason, we checked into the Inn prior to heading over to the park.  Big Mistake!  E-bird records show that the bird was probably being seen as we checked in.

Historic property is being refurbished

Before Larry arrived to join us at Elvis's for dinner, we birded the City Park briefly where I focused my camera on the odd-looking Acorn Woodpecker.

We had to wait until after breakfast the next morning at the Coffee Grounds to take up the search for the Yellow-throated Warbler, but the best we came up with was a male Hepatic Tanager.  

Acorn Woodpecker 
Hepatic Tanager
We wanted to take time to visit the Paton House, well-known for its hummingbirds (in spring) and its ground-cover for other birds.  Some of the birds I saw there for the first time this year included Pine Siskin and Pyrrhuloxia.  

Larry was ready to join us for another birding day and directed us out to Harshaw Creek Road where we found a small flock of Eastern (Azure) Bluebirds.   Tucson Audubon describes them:  Azure (or Mexican) Bluebirds (Sialia sialis fulva) are a subspecies of the Eastern Bluebird limited in range to northern Mexico and southeast Arizona.  And we had distant but clear views of them!  

It was 1:00 p.m. when we started driving the grassland area of Sonoita's Lower Elgin Road and the Curly Horse Road loop searching for hawks, sparrows and, most particularly, a White-tailed Kite.  After bouncing around some dirt roads, we found not one, but two White-tailed Kites.

White-tailed Kite in the distance

What a way to wrap up a magnificent weekend of birding!  

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  1. Epic trek Babs. We went to find that RCWA but went later when all the fisher folk were there. Getting up early was definitely the right move. Plus you have a nice group birding with you! Congrats!

  2. Wow Ms. Babs, this post rocks! You saw some amazing birds too! You guys are tearing up eBird's Top 100!

  3. Yes, Chris, I think the early hour was a good move for us.

    And, Caleb, we're having a great time out there but I've had to act like an adult for the past two days and gather IRS info - not that it's so much, just tedious and tossing into in a box all year isn't the most organized strategy to get this done painlessly.