Mt. Lemmon and Sweetwater Wetlands, Tucson, Pima County, AZ

May 11, 2015
Instead of birding in the desert today, I planned a trip to Mt. Lemmon, accessible from Tucson's Catalina Highway. Birds there are so very different from what I see locally, that it creates a challenge and is fun to watch birds that I see only when I head to higher elevations.

Birder friend, Lois, was able to join me for the day, so I picked her up at 5:15 a.m. On the way to her house, I remembered it was Monday -- spray day for mosquitoes at Sweetwater Wetlands. We stopped by anyway, because I didn't recall if it happened each Monday or on certain Mondays of the month. Either way, the fence was closed and a man was getting ready to proceed with spraying. We moved on quickly to our destination: Mt. Lemmon.

It was 8:20 a.m. when we reached our first stop at the lower end of the mountain: Molino Canyon Vista. I wanted to get outfitted with my binoculars, camera and water. After that we strolled just a very short distance on the bluff overlooking the canyon. The birds made me smile.

Still desert here, an Ash-troated Flycatcher posed between Ocotillo branches

In the distance, a male Western Tanager peeked out from the top of the dense leaves of its tree.
Those two birds were the highlight for me there, although we also saw one of my favorite desert birds at this elevation: Rock Wren. We also enjoyed the cascading song of the Canyon Wren.

My plan was to stop at as many of the recreation areas as seemed feasible as we drove toward Ski Valley at the top. Next stop was Molino Basin.

We had just started birding there when another car pulled in. We met Karen and Jim from Western New York who were wrapping up a two-week birding trip that they had put together themselves. We birded together for most of our time there, but we left before they did. The highlight for us was something they missed but I posted it in e-Bird in case they check my list.  When we returned to the parking lot, a female Hooded Oriole was at their car's rear-view mirror having the time of its life! Bugs and Self Image!

Hooded Oriole (female)

Next, I stopped at Gordon Hirabayashi RA (Prison Camp). Today, I read the historical markers indicating that this was an "honor camp" - no fences - and that the inmates built the road on Mt. Lemmon. Gordon Hirabayashi knew his American civics and protested the imprisonment of himself and his Japanese-American citizens. Years later, he was recognized for this when the US apologized to all American citizens of Japanese heritage who were dislocated from their homes to prison camps across the western USA during WWII. 
Our birding there produced several wrens (House and Bewick's), a surprise Bridled Titmouse and a bigger surprise, migrating Lark Buntings. I questioned my identification because I consider them a desert bird, and here they were, high in a tree, gleaning from leaves. They were included on the eBird checklist.

Arriving at Middle Bear Recreation Area at 10:00, we continued to enjoy temperatures in the 60s - our starting point reading - that lasted all the way to the top.

Lois had her birding experience of the day at this stop. As soon as I parked the car, a bird had flown up to the top of her rear-view mirror, then came down to the mirror holder and pecked on her window. I had seen none of this; I was parking, cutting the engine and preparing to get out. Lois kept saying, "Look!"  So, I looked through the windshield.  By then, the movement beside her caught my attention. Never had I seen a Yellow-eyed Junco so up close and personal. We watched for several minutes as it appeared to glean bugs, then admire itself (can it see its own image? - does it know its own image?), then peck on Lois' passenger window again. It became its routine. But you know me; that called for a camera and mine was in the back seat. Successfully, I got of the car but the back door was locked and when I reached for that button the bird flew to the ground.  Not far away, I did take its photo but not on its mirror perch!

Yellow-eyed Junco

As soon as I got out of the car, I heard "Jose - Hosea - Maria!" -- a Greater Pewee calling from deep within the forest. Its voice came closer eventually but neither of us could locate the bird.
Notably, we spotted three woodpeckers here: Acorn, Northern Flicker and Arizona. 
A voice I hadn't yet heard this year was that of the Dusky-capped Flycatcher. Its several descending melancholy phrases are easy to pick up among the higher pitched and singing birds around it. Lois recognized the bird's call, too. And, we lucked out when it came forward and showed itself. Some photos turn out; others go to the trash can. For this bird,it was one blurry shot after another - my problem, but I then assumed the bird didn't mind showing itself but drew the line at a photograph - not unlike another birder friend.

Rose Canyon was a "target birding" spot: the Buff-breasted Flycatcher had been reported seen behind the Lizard Rock Group Camping area so that was our destination.  In the forty minutes we strolled the forest, we noted Pygmy Nuthatch, White-breasted Nuthatch, more Yellow-eyed Juncos, Bewick's Wrens, Violet-green Swallows and, finally, Buff-breasted Flycatchers! Not a Life Bird for me, but it is still closer to home than any other place I've seen them in Arizona.

Buff-breasted Flycatcher above and below.  Actually, its throat is very light.  Its "lemon" color is strictly sunlight in the photograph.

The sun lit up the buffy, more orange color of its breast, making it appear yellow where it is not. In the photo, you can see the black tip of its bi-colored beak, the primary wing projection stopping just below the vent and the short notched tail with white outer feathers. Yay!

From there, we decided to eat lunch at the Iron Door Restaurant at the Ski Run area, at an elevation of 9,157 feet. We were comfortable with their outdoor seating where we had perfect views of three or four very active hummingbird feeders. Between bites of food, one of us would call, "Magnificent!"  (name of a very large and beautiful hummingbird)  Or, "Broad-tailed".  That's not one I see very often so it was fun to hear the hum of its wings as it approached.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird (female)

Here, again a Yellow-eyed Junco stole the show with its tame behavior. It walked on the window sill beside us, it walked the floor around all the tables looking for tidbits, it even came up on our table! 

Yellow-eyed Junco on our outdoor restaurant table at Ski Valley, Mt. Lemmon

Filled with food but not yet enough birds, we stopped at Incinerator Ridge on the way down the mountain where we saw our only American Robin of the day, a Hermit Thrush singing its flute-like song the whole time we were there, Steller's Jays, Red-faced Warbler and an Olive Warbler. What a treasure of bird sightings the mountain had given!

To avoid getting caught in the afternoon commuter traffic, we stopped off at Sweetwater Wetlands (92°) to check out the birds there. White-winged Doves were already coming in to roost. Spotting a lingering Cinnamon Teal surprised us, but most of the other waterfowl were expected. Lois spotted the rare, but continuing, Tropical Kingbird, and I spotted the Western Wood-pewee - two very handsome flycatchers. 

Reminding us that we were back in the desert, we spotted this Arizona Desert Spiny Lizard at Sweetwater Wetlands.

As usual, we had put in a long day of exhilarating birding to the tune of 63 species. It was 7:30 p.m. when I arrived home physically tired but still revved with enormous good energy from the forests, the birds and the people we met.

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