Mt. Lemmon, Santa Catalina Mountains, Coronado National Forest, Tucson, AZ

March 21, 2015
The pull of reports of a rare Mexican bird the past two days at Mt. Lemmon got me out of bed really early on this Saturday morning, the first full day of Spring.  What better way to celebrate the new season than by seeing the Slate-throated Redstart.
For me, the most direct driving route to Mt. Lemmon took me through Florence to Oracle Road before winding through Tucson to reach Catalina Highway that leads up the mountain.  After passing several of the lower recreation areas, I reached Gordon Hirabashi (Prison Camp) Recreation Area (approx. 4,000' elevation) where the bird had been seen on Thursday and Friday. The parking lot was already full at 7:15 a.m.  A birding group from Tucson Audubon Society (TAS) decided to try their luck there, too, before their scheduled walk and I was invited to join them. Having never visited this site before and although I had details from eBird to follow regarding the bird's location, I was grateful to join the group.

The large group was split into two of about ten each; I was in Ken's group.  He had seen the bird on Thursday and knew its call so I was comfortable searching with him. At first, we stood quietly still in the area near the parking lot and restrooms where the Slate-throated Redstart had spent much of yesterday afternoon. Ken had described the bird's call as being somewhat like a Chipping Sparrow but higher. That was a good clue for me because I hear the higher registers better than the low.  After about ten minutes in that spot, we began walking slowly and quietly up the dry rocky and sandy creek bed stopping to listen from time to time. I noted several birds along the way but was more intent on listening for our target species than tallying a comprehensive list.

We reached the dam and went well past it to a fork in the creek that prevented easy passage beyond.  We stood; we listened.

Eventually, we walked back to our starting spot on the high trail that the other TAS group had covered.  The two group leaders stayed in radio contact in order to search as much of the bird's known territory as possible. It was an intense effort so I kept my camera quiet, not even taking a photo of the Cooper's Hawk flying from one tree where it gathered sticks, to its nest-making tree nearby. Nor did I photograph the Anna's Hummingbird nest fairly close to us because the two young and ready-to-fledge babies were obstructed by leaves no matter where I stood or squatted.  As we were standing close to the parking area by this time, I also met Jay Taylor, another Phoenix area birder who had made the trek for the rarity.  He was arriving about the time I would leave. Two hours had elapsed with TAS and they decided to move on to its scheduled Bird Walk area while I chose to continue up Mount Lemmon.

When I reached my destination at Rose Canyon at about 7,000' elevation at 9:45 a.m., the gate blocked entry but cars were parked in a small lot beside the entrance road so I parked there. I noted that the clear sky we had at the lower elevation was changing to very black clouds but the mostly ponderosa pine forest would probably yield some good birds. Right off the bat, as I got out of the car, I heard and saw Olive Warblers!  That species is not an everyday bird for me as it's usually limited to higher elevations. A small group of four of them, at my eye level along the highway parking area, were foraging in the tree tops. They were moving quickly but I tried photos. I'm not sure if there were two males and two females, because of their movements but I sensed seeing the females more often and it's possible the male was alone with them. He always seemed to have his head buried into the thickness of the pine needle stem.

Female Olive Warbler
Also flitting about next to the parking area were a male and female Western Bluebird. I observed them for about ten minutes.
Western Bluebird
When I descended into the canyon, I was early enough to hear a lot of bird song, more than I could identify. Although I intended to walk all the way to the Lake, the dark clouds were overhead and bird calls had dwindled, so I turned back when I was very close to the lowest part of the paved road.  As I walked uphill, I heard a Hutton's Vireo, but not totally confident about "birding by ear", I pulled my iBird app and played it.  It was a match.  When I looked up, I saw two birders coming toward me. It took me a second to realize it was my friend, Tommy Debardeleben who was accompanied by Dominic Sherony. They had also showed up for the Slate-throated Redstart and spent two hours looking before coming up to Rose Canyon. It was great seeing them.

Not yet having seen a Yellow-eyed Junco this year, I was delighted to have them ignore me and my camera while they poked around the edges of the roadway.
Yellow-eyed Junco

Despite dipping on the target bird, a day in the coolness of the mountain was highly enjoyable especially considering the birds I did see and hear. It was a 275-mile round trip, mostly because I decided to return via I-10.

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