A Cardinal Day at Boyce Thompson Arboretum, Pinal County, Arizona

Friday, May 29, 2015
With the summer hours in effect at BTA, Julie Clark and I were able to start birding at 6:00 a.m.  

On the entrance terrace, we were surrounded by bird song. Close by was a Black-chinned Hummingbird. A Bell’s Vireo was calling and two Yellow-breasted Chats were loudly voicing a wide range of sounds including knocks, trills, and imitations of other bird songs. A beautiful bird that hides deep in a tree or shrub, the Chat is like the cut-up in the classroom. You can’t see me!  But we all know it’s in there going through its long repertoire of sounds.  The Chats (warbler family) were all through the Arboretum this morning, but did they follow for attention?  Were there way more than I counted?  I have no idea; some days, I just guess.  Can three birds fly around to give us a much higher count? Probably, but I’m not the one to know.

The early-morning hour was cool and slightly breezy so we headed first to Ayer Lake to see what birds or waterfowl we might find there.  On our slow birding walk toward the lake, a Great Blue Heron flew over our trail.  The first bird we saw when we reached the water was a Black Phoebe hawking insects from its perch on the “blue barrel”.  I heard and saw just one Northern Rough-winged Swallow before five Violet-green Swallows showed up to skim the water and fly off. I caught sight of a Spotted Sandpiper flying off from the edge of the reeds and we were delighted to hear two Common Yellowthroat singing from within the thick reed blades.

Returning toward the Smith Building, a workman told us where to look for a hummingbird nest in the Palm forest. The nest was in a Sandpaper tree, he said.  We located several Sandpaper trees near the bench he described and saw an Anna’s Hummingbird but didn’t close in on it in case it was nesting. Never did find the nest.

Walking the shady path toward the Herb Garden is always pleasant and full of Northern Cardinals.  One male just wouldn’t stop showing off for us!

Impressive beak!
How do you like this angle?
This is what I do!

From the bridge over Queen Creek, we heard Canyon Wrens and spotted a Brown-crested Flycatcher.  Julie spotted a female Hooded Oriole and had earlier spotted a female Summer Tanager. She was on a roll!

Also from the bridge, a Rock Squirrel was nibbling grass from the dry creek bed.  

When we reached the Demonstration Garden, I spotted the male Hooded Oriole in one of its favorite hang outs — the flowering Desert Willow.  

Lesser Goldfinch were enjoying the corner water feature and a single Lucy’s Warbler flew in twice for a sip.  

Although we had counted two Curve-billed Thrashers from its “Wheet wheet” call, we finally saw one in that area.

It’s been awhile since I’ve birded with Julie (her daughter got married this spring) so it was really pleasant to catch up and bird with her again.

37 species in a little over three hours breaks no record, that’s for sure!  But we enjoyed the fresh aroma of the Arboretum’s blooms and greenness as we strolled the trails in search of birds.

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12-hour Birding Adventure to Florida (floor-ee-dah) & Madera Canyons, Pima & Santa Cruz Counties, AZ

Tuesday, May 26, 2015
Without much notice, I called Marsha Wiles, who had helped me with the Lost Dutchman State Park Migratory Bird Count on May 9th, to see if she had any interest in running down to the Green Valley area (south of Tucson) with me. Not an early riser, she hesitated before telling me "Yes!".  She's been staying in Arizona for three months and has already accumulated a respectable list for state sightings and figured she could add to it before returning to Colorado the end of this month. So, I had company for the trip -- something I prefer at my age and strength levels. In years past, my self-defense skills allowed me to bird as a "loner" without concern.

After picking her up at 4:30 a.m., we arrived at Florida Canyon to start birding by 7:15 a.m.
Because I had seen a report from the previous day listing Montezuma Quail at that location, we skipped all the singing sparrows along the drive in on the dirt road.  We did see several Black-throated Sparrows and we would see a few more in lower Florida Canyon but missed out on hearing or seeing any Montezuma Quail. 

We took our time and followed the stream trail to look specifically for Indigo Buntings (3) and a Varied Bunting reported seen there yesterday.

I found the place a little less "birdy" than my last visit with timing approximately the same. By the time we came down the hill over an hour later, however, birds were much more active and all of our flycatcher sightings came well below the gate. Our best sightings at this lower level also included one of our target birds, Varied Bunting. I spotted it on a thick tree limb - looking like a dark bird but its shape and size clicked for me: Varied Bunting. When Marsha got on it, we both lifted our cameras and - PING - the bird was gone.  No photo, but it flew to a distant tree in the sunshine where we were treated to its full variety of colors:  blue face, brick-red nape, purple back and wings (or so they appeared), blue rump and tail. It's conical bill had the curved culmen and appeared light in the sun. Photo below is from the internet

After walking the dirt/scree trails of Florida Canyon, we welcomed the next stop at Santa Rita Lodge where we sat in the shade waiting for birds to come to the many feeders stationed around a large flat area below tall trees. Two Blue Grosbeaks foraged for seeds on the ground in front of us.

They often fan their tails when foraging.

Marsha had missed the Arizona Woodpecker on her last visit to this spot, so she was hoping to see one on this trip. She lucked out with seeing both the male and female while we sat there observing the many birds flying in and out.

Male Arizona Woodpecker

In addition to the two Arizona Woodpeckers, we spotted a Ladder-backed and a fair number of Acorn Woodpeckers.

Comical-looking Acorn Woodpecker

Mexican Jays always enjoy free food:

We stopped briefly at the Kubo B & B birding area where we saw many of the same species as had visited Santa Rita Lodge feeders: Magnificent Hummingbird, Black-headed Grosbeak, White-breasted Nuthatch and Bridled Titmouse.  At least one new bird found here was the Rufous-crowned Sparrow, another Life Bird for Marsha, as I recall.

Kubo Bird Sanctuary

After enjoying our lunch at the picnic area at the end of Madera Canyon Road, we took Steve's advice (manager of Santa Rita Lodge) and explored one of the Amphitheater trails for Montezuma Quail that have been reported from the "grassy areas" up there. Apparently, adults have young and are out and about.  It was mid-day, so we worked up a sweat even though we were taking it easy. The MOQU must not have liked the heat, either. No sight of them!

View from our Amphitheater Trail of the Santa Rita Mountains

Marsha coming down Amphitheater trail

It was Marsha who spotted several nifty birds in one tree at the parking lot: Hutton's Vireo, Bridled Titmouse and a Cassin's Vireo, looking very much like a Plumbeous except for its darker head and back and yellowish wash on the flanks and lower belly.

In two and one-half hours, we were back home. Our day that began at 4:30 a.m., ended at 4:30 p.m.  With temperatures into the 90s, these long days get tougher, but the variety of birds at this location were quite different from our ordinary desert birds, making it a trip well worthwhile!

We tallied 42 species for the day, not counting birds seen while driving (i.e., Rock Pigeons, Red-tailed Hawks, etc.)

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An Unusual Find in the Desert: Entrance Road to First Water Trailheads, Maricopa County, AZ

Sunday, May 24, 2015
Awaking early to another cool morning, I decided to go looking for birds at a location that would avoid traffic and hordes of people on this Memorial Day Weekend.  That meant I would skip all my usual places like the Salt River Recreation Areas, Gilbert Water Ranch, Boyce Thompson Arboretum and more. So, where to go?

Having traded in hiking for birding a number of years ago, I realized I had never explored the First Water Trailhead area for birds.  When I turned into the marked dirt road (about 1/4 mile or less past the entrance to Lost Dutchman State Park) I was energized immediately by the morning chorus of desert birds.

So, rather than continue to the hiking trails at the end of the road, I pulled off at the “Crosscut and Massacre Grounds” trail head parking lot, being only the second car parked there. Wanting to not take the trails into the Superstition Mountains, I walked the wash and the desert closer to the dirt entrance road where the birds were singing.

The mesquite, palo verde and ironwood trees as well as the desert shrubs held various birds from Verdin and Black-tailed Gnatcatchers to Black-throated Sparrows and a singing female Northern Cardinal. The brittle bush had lost its early-spring mound of yellow flowers and was mostly dry, dark and brittle, but the Cactus Wrens liked the lower limbs and the shady root area.  

Creosote plants had also lost their covering of yellow flower heads but were vibrant with glossy green leaves. 

Desert Cottontails bounded out of sight as I moved slowly and carefully through the desert trying to locate each bird voice.  Where was that Ladder-backed Woodpecker? It caught my attention with its whinny before I heard its light tapping.  I searched a nearby mostly-bare mesquite tree for it but it had flown and gave its “pik” call from another mesquite where I located it.

I was keeping my eyes on the ground, too. Unknowingly, earlier in the week while I was looking up at birds, I was standing on an ant hill.  I got bit badly and was not thrilled to have the bite leave a large red/black hard spot (as big as the mouth of a coffee cup) on my calf muscle.  My “After Bite” ointment was not with me, but it reduced the inflammation immediately when I got home.  The other holes in the ground, I didn’t want to think about but kept my eyes peeled for whatever might peek out.

Cat’s claw acacia was the only tree in bloom. It attracted Verdin who were well camouflaged among the yellow blooms. I tried to avoid coming in contact with its nasty  thorns that grab and hold and can easily tear fabric and skin. While I tried to follow open spaces between plants, my shoes were full of foxtails and with jeans on, the cat’s claw failed to impale me as I brushed past it several times.

Having walked the west side of the dirt entrance road toward Route 88, I crossed over to the east-side desert to return to the parking lot.

There I spied something that caught my attention. Through my binoculars, it appeared to be a white table with a sheet over it and included something that looked like a gold ribbon.  My first thought went to a possible “ceremony” in the desert since I’ve participated in such things, but it seemed unusual to have left anything behind.

Curious, I walked over to it.  As I got closer, I thought it might be a refrigerator. When I got really close, it seemed to be a box with a smell emanating from it that would attract Turkey Vultures.

Unusual Find in the Desert
I wondered if someone would bury a dog like that since digging in the desert caliche is like trying to dig through concrete.  Continuing to bird my way back to the car, I couldn’t shake the images that my intuition and imagination were conjuring.  

Having decided to report what I found, I drove out to Route 88 to get a phone signal.  An Apache Junction Police clerk decided that I was outside its jurisdiction and transferred me to the Pinal County sheriff’s office clerk to whom I repeated my report. She asked that I meet an officer there, so I returned to the entrance road from where I had driven on Route 88 for a cell signal.

Then I got a call back telling me that First Water was in Maricopa County but that call got dropped as it was hooking me up with Maricopa sheriff’s office. So, I left my spot, where I had resumed birding at the entrance road off of Route 88 and headed to Starbucks wondering:  a) should I have bothered reporting it?  b) will it get pushed aside because it’s a holiday?   Although I enjoy a good mystery story, local newspapers carry stories all too often of bodies found in the desert.

At 8:30 a.m., dust was rising on the road into First Water Trailhead with one car after the other pulling in to head for hiking trails and Route 88 was already full of cars headed to the lakes as I headed the opposite direction toward Apache Junction.

At Starbucks, about twenty minutes later, I received a call from the Maricopa County sheriff’s office clerk who had a sheriff out at First Water looking for me. I gave the clerk good instructions as to how to find the “box” which she passed along. Within five minutes, she called back to let me know that the box had been located — and that was all I needed to know.

While I enjoy birding adventures, today’s find was a bit over the top. 

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Flame-colored Tanager in Ramsey Canyon, Sierra Vista, Cochise County, AZ

Plans for a four-day birding adventure to Southeast Arizona (May 17-20) were worked out in advance of the pair of Flame-colored Tanagers arriving in Ramsey Canyon on or around May 9th.  When I heard reports of these rare visitors from Mexico gathering nesting material in the canyon, I relaxed and hoped they would hang around so I could get to see them.

Kay Hawklee, a birder I met on Melody Kehl’s Big Bend birding trip, was interested in my proposed plan during which I would be focusing on seeing birds that I haven’t yet seen this year in Arizona.   Kay, having been birding now for all of four months assumed, rightly, that if I was searching for birds, she was bound to gather some good ones for herself and she jumped on board.

Day # 1:  Sunday, May 17th.
Kay drove as we headed south to where we began birding at Las Cienegas National Conservation Area via its western entrance at 8:45 a.m.   At the first pull-off, we immediately heard birds singing.  I discerned them to be Botteri’s but took photos to confirm (or not) its identification since they were perched quite a distance from us.

Botteri's Sparrow
At the tank and corral area, we had more sparrows singing and popping up and down on the grasses and within the mesquite trees: Cassin’s, Lark and Grasshopper were our best finds.

Grasshopper Sparrow
In a dry patch of brown earth, Kay spotted a Horned Lark walking around by itself. Usually I see them in flocks, but this one was out on its own today.

Within the same conservation area, we drove over to Empire Gulch, parking at the cottonwood lot.  Larry Morgan (caretaker at Tucson Audubon's Paton House), was just leaving, having shown some of his Mississippi family this cool birding spot.
A previously reported Northern Waterthrush at this marsh area would be a Lifer for me if I could find it!
The trail leads to soggy ground and marshy areas.  We met Betsy Checchia, whose name I recognized from the ListServ.  Some of our best sightings included a Gray Hawk, Greater Roadrunner, Western and Summer Tanagers, Black-headed and Blue Grosbeaks and one Bullock’s Oriole.  Kay found an Empidomax that only she saw. It’s tough enough to ID them when I actually see them, let alone by verbal description, so she’ll figure it out.
Yet again, I dipped on finding the Northern Waterthrush.

Western Tanager

From Las Cienegas, we headed to Madera Canyon.  When Kay saw the sign to Madera Canyon (Greaterville Road), she quickly swung left and followed that dirt road rather than sticking to the longer highway route.  At the dirt-road junction for Greaterville, we stayed right on FR 62 (South Forest Road, Sahuarita, AZ) all the way to where we both guessed it would end: Florida Canyon/Madera Road corner.  It was a gorgeous drive through more grasslands and mesquite trees. The 28-mile trip took 1.5 hours through quiet wilderness…we loved it.

In Madera Canyon, we went first to Kubo B&B mainly because no parking spots were open at Santa Rita Lodge. It’s hosting a rare hummingbird: the Plain-capped Starthroat. In the 15 minutes we spent at the Kubo bird sanctuary, we managed to see, among many other birds, one Magnificent Hummingbird and heard an Elegant Trogon barking - a new experience for Kay.

At Santa Rita Lodge, we found a parking spot and had been there only about 20 minutes when I saw a large hummingbird land on the back of a feeder. I asked Cindy Marple, standing next to me, “What just landed on Feeder 11?”   

Thus, we got to see the rare Mexican hummingbird that is among the largest of hummingbirds.  It's rather drab but very startling to see at a feeder with normal-sized hummingbirds like Broad-billed or Black-chinned.

Since I wanted to do some Owling in the evening and we had left the Phoenix Valley quite early, we left Madera Canyon around 3:30 to check into our motel. After resting for an hour or so, we ate a light dinner before heading off to Madera Canyon again. Several birders arrived as we did around 7 p.m.at Santa Rita Lodge to watch for the Elf Owl.  The Elf Owl lives in a pole full of woodpecker holes. Someone pointed out the precise hole to watch and at 7:30, the Elf Owl came to the front of its hole.  We got good views of it for 5 or 10 minutes before darkness began to hide it and it flew off.

Bird guide, Richard Frey was there and suggested we drop down one parking area to listen for the Whiskered Screech Owl but the most frequent call there was the Lesser Nighthawk. Before we left, I heard the Northern Pygmy Owl, not the Western Screech I was hoping for.  So, we drove up toward the top of the paved road. Both Kay and I heard the Mexican Whip-poor-will calling from very close by so she just stopped in the middle of the dark empty road while we listened to it.  As it continued, she pulled out her iPhone and recorded its voice!  Very cool.  (She later texted it to me, but I don’t know if I can attach it here.)  At the top, we parked and began walking the Carrie Nation Trail using our phone flashlights. Western Screech Owl and Common Poorwill were vocal before we returned to the car and headed for Proctor Road which gave us nothing!  What a long and rewarding birding day it had turned out to be!

Day #2: Monday, May 18th:
Dreams of the Flame-colored Tanager changed my plan. Some years ago, this Mexican visitor nested in Ramsey Canyon regularly, but hadn't been seen there in five years. 

So, instead of spending a precious day in Patagonia, we stopped only at the Roadside Rest Hot Spot where we immediately heard the Thick-billed Kingbird.  Walking across Highway 82 gave us a great look at the bird perched on a high snag. Since it was into the sun, I took no photos since I had done that successfully two weeks ago.  It was a nice stop to stretch our legs and do some extra birding for about 15 minutes.

Then, our straight-forward drive to Sierra Vista brought us to Ramsey Canyon Preserve at 9:15 a.m. on Monday morning with no parking spots available.  Kay, being a “newbie” shushed me out of the car and up the trail while she waited for a spot to open up for her car. This bird was not on her horizon.  When I saw birders already coming down, I knew Kay would soon be joining me. The birders had seen both the male and female Flame-colored Tanagers. (Its name comes from the male’s coloring.) My excitement rose with each step up the trail.

I counted eighteen (18) birders gathered along a portion of upper the trail when I approached. 

Melody Kehl was standing back, so I stopped briefly for a few words with her before walking forward into the gathered birders.  Before sitting on the bench, I looked up in the trees behind us where I had just heard a “”pr-reck” call I didn’t know. It was the female Flame-colored Tanager.  As usual, I spoke out:  “Here it is!”  Immediately, I got, “Did it have a dark bill?”  Hmmm.  I didn’t answer, but the gentleman soon got his answer at it flew over our path to an open branch where everyone saw the yellow running from its throat to its vent that I had seen. Also visible was its thick dark bill and dark auricular outline. Its wings, not obvious as she faced us, did carry two light wing bars and spots. (Western Tanager’s belly includes much more olive in the yellow.)  After moving around briefly, the female settled into a nest well-hidden behind tangles.  A very loud family was bothering the heck out of me and I didn’t follow them around the trail to look up into the nest but when they started taking photos, I wandered over there. I had decided to enjoy the birds instead of taking photos, but with the female settled, I wanted to see what I might get.  Tangles were thick and no matter how many times I was told the location of the nest, I didn’t really find it.  I returned to the other side of the loop. Kay had arrived and would see both the male and female as they came in later. 
With the colors of those tropical birds imprinted on my brain, I was in awe of their beauty and appreciative of their crossing the border this year for its nesting location.
Online photo of male Flame-colored Tanager; female below.

I had been surprised to find an active nesting area of rare birds open to us for viewing. There was discussion among birders and Ramsey Canyon volunteers about closing this section of Bledsoe Loop but the consensus seemed to be to allow access for the birders.  Hopefully, the attention of so many viewers and photographers will not drive the birds away.

As we reached the parking lot, we came upon Jim Ripley and Pam, just arriving for the Flame-colored Tanagers. If you follow on Facebook, “Birding Arizona and the Southwest,” you will see that he was quite successful in his quest for a “decent” photo!!

Kay and Babs, Ramsey Canyon
At that point, we took a break before venturing up Carr Canyon later in the afternoon.  While my goal had been to see if any Red Crossbills or Buff-breasted Flycatchers remained at Reef Campsite, I really didn’t know the distance and it turned out to be rather significant. (7 miles over rough dirt road)  We didn't start up the canyon until after 6 p.m., and, after a while, it seemed that each time we rounded a hairpin turn, I expected to recognize the flat area of the campsite. With dusk approaching, we were chagrined to see a sign saying 4 miles to Reef Campsite. We pulled over after another mile or so at a somewhat wide curve.  Enough!.  We had a gorgeous view of Sierra Vista from where we were.

Day #3: Tuesday, May19th:
Today, our goal was to find an Elegant Trogon for Kay.  Two weeks ago, I had been successful in locating them in Huachuca Canyon, but would they still be around?  At the parking lot, we immediately heard two Elegant Trogons calling back and forth across the road leading from the parking area.  Neither were visible, so I continued walking up canyon to see what other birds might be present.  Kay caught up with me later and we birded until it seemed less “birdy” than around the parking area.  A man, “Bill”,  was coming down from above; he had gone up past the dam and found Grace’s Warblers but no Red-faced Warblers.

While I only got a glimpse of an Elegant Trogon, Kay watched persistently and was rewarded with a great look at a male ELTR, enough so that she got a very decent identification photo.  Among the many birds in the canyon, the Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher was my favorite today.

Back at the parking lot, we came upon Jim Ripley and Pam, again.  He showed us his photo of the Flame-colored Tanager which was absolutely awesome.  On Facebook, check out “Birding Arizona and the Southwest” to see his excellent photo of the male carrying food to the female.

Tony Battiste was also there with guests.  He invited us over to his place for the evening to watch for the Montezuma Quail.  Sounded good to us.

But first, we had other places to visit. The San Pedro House and trail were up to their usual good stuff when we arrived there next. We walked the loop out to and around Green Kingfisher Pond were I saw a Virginia Rail.

Kay seemed to have an affinity for the Common Yellowthroats, finding most all of them, including the female. Summer and Western Tanagers were present and Yellow Warblers were probably more present than the three I entered into e-bird.  I never know how much they fly around but I could easily double that number and still not have counted all we heard.

Back at the San Pedro House, we got good looks at the Common Ground Dove, and Blue Grosbeak.

As we pulled out from the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, a Chihuahuan Raven flew overhead.

A visit to Ash Canyon B&B resulted in our getting acquainted with a few other birders there; Mary Jo was inside and many of the feeders were empty.  She departed for a bird-food shopping spree in town before we left.

White-winged Doves
Scott's Oriole on left; House Finches on right

First waterlilies of the year on her pond

We still had time to visit Beatty’s Conservation Area to see if the male White-eared Hummingbird would show up.  It surely did!  The male is much more distinctive than the female as its broad white eyebrows contrast with its dark cheeks. I caught sight of it within the oak tree beside the feeders but when it came out to feed, its back was totally toward me, not showing its white stripes.

Kay's photo of the male White-eared Hummingbird

Just before we left the hummingbird area, the folks we met at Mary Jo’s arrived since they hadn't known the White-eared Hummingbird was present in Miller Canyon until we mentioned it upon leaving. 

Also at the feeders, Magnificent Hummingbird gave better views of its size than its wonderful colors.

We definitely wanted to get over to Battiste Bed & Breakfast birding layout to see the Montezuma Quail that has been wandering into the Battiste yard every morning and evening for a couple weeks. Though it was after 5 p.m. when we arrived, Tony assured us the quail had not made its appearance. There were several birders already there, including Bill from Huachuca Canyon earlier in the morning.  So, we sat.  And, we sat.  Julie came out to join us.  Soon after, a small hummingbird - very colorful with a long decurved bill, flew in to sip from a magenta cholla cactus blossom.  Tony was so surprised, he couldn’t get its name out.  Finally, “LUCIFER”.  Quite Rare, I knew.  He told the two photographers to shoot. . .shoot….shoot…shoot.  I think Tony’s excitement got them excited because none of their pictures turned out.  And, when all was said and done, Tony’s camera stood on its tripod right in front of him and he never reached for it!!  I didn’t bother with my camera.  I’ve reached the point of wanting to see the bird before taking its photo.  If it stays long enough, fine; if it doesn’t, at least I have seen something I’ve never seen before.  Never had I observed a male Lucifer for that long in such a perfect setting:  its magenta gorget matched that of the blossom — both lit up by sunlight.  Gorgeous!

Online photo of male Lucifer Hummingbird
That male Lucifer Hummingbird made up for missing the Montezuma Quail.

Day #4: Wednesday, May 20th:
Time seemed to fly as we headed toward home.  With a stop at Sweetwater to round out our list with the four possible kingbirds in Arizona with the Tropical - we were too late.  We met the folks who had just seen them but we didn't ferret them out from their location at or between the old Rogers Road Water Treatment Plant and Sweetwater.  However, I got better photos of the Olive-sided Flycatcher than I had taken toward dusk when Lois and I stopped by there about a week ago.

Kay dropped me at the house around noontime and headed home to Sedona, a long lot of driving for her.  She was great company, a sharp spotter, and is being well-trained by Dena of Jay's Bird Barn in Sedona. We're likely going to be seeing more of her in the field.

Total species observed on the trip:  117

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