Southeast Arizona with Birding Pals, Elena and Karen

May 3, 4 & 5, 2015
About a year ago, I signed up with an online group, “Birding Pals”, through which birders can connect with one another.  This is especially helpful when visiting other states where, even though we can locate good spots from eBird, we may not know the best approach for birding those spots.  Since I’m out birding a lot and fill my calendar with Audubon field trips, I’m not always available when contacted by birders wanting to visit Arizona, but in this case I was. 

Early Sunday morning, May 3rd, I met Elena, from Connecticut, and Karen, from Utah, and joined them in their rented Mazda CRV for our 3-day trip to Southeastern Arizona. 

First stop of the day was at Florida Canyon. The Canyon attracts many species, including the rare visitor from Mexico, Black-capped Gnatcatcher. Elena, as driver for the whole trip, listened to Karen and I talk in the car about the identification markers and the songs and chip calls for this and other birds we would see.  

From the moment we started birding Whitehouse Canyon Road, I knew I was going to get along well with these two birders. Elena hit her brakes, pulled over and said, “What was that?”  To start a trip with two Brown-crested Flycatchers is not too shabby. Larger than the more familiar Ash-throated Flycatcher of our lower elevation deserts, these two birds were cavorting about in mesquite and some taller trees along the roadway. The Phainopepla that flew in and perched was a big hit with Karen and two Hooded Orioles gave us some good views along that drive. Their bright yellow and black plumage was stunning against the backdrop of the desert scrub and dark mesquite trees.

L-R: Elena & Karen
At Florida Canyon, while I had hoped we might hear the Black-capped Gnatcatcher in the parking area, none of us wanted to sit around and wait for that to happen, so we began walking the trail across the dry stream bed on up to another known location. As we ascended, other flycatchers were active in flying out to catch insects, then returning to their perches. The Olive-sided Flycatcher, a favorite of mine, showed its clear white throat and “olive-gray vest” covering all but a swath of white belly all the way to its vent — looking very dapper in the morning sunlight. 

Coues White-tailed Deer, Florida Canyon

One of the small Empidonax flycatchers was giving me fits. There seem to be many gray birds of this species about the same size (5.5 - 6.0”) with similar wing bars, short bills and varied eye rings. While I was pondering a possible ID, the bird wagged its tail downward, clinching the Gray Flycatcher identification. 

Both the Canyon Wren’s singing and the Cactus Wren calling were new to Karen. To share the joy she felt from some of her new discoveries was awesome.

We managed to get so engrossed in birding, we hiked right past one of the known locations for the Black-capped Gnatcatcher, and did not find it at the higher juniper location where others had reported it. But on our way back down, we came upon a group of birders at the Black-capped Gnatcatcher’s nest area in the hackberries. They had been watching the male make runs to and from the nest. Of course, we watched, too!

Our second stop of the day was over at Madera Canyon, a short distance from Florida. I stopped first at Kubo Cabins where the owner is always so welcoming. Here, the Mexican Jay, Bridled Titmouse and Yellow-eyed Junco got exclamations from my birding pals. Later, at Santa Rita Lodge we enjoyed great views of the Acorn Woodpecker and Magnificent Hummingbird among other species. Then, we drove up to the Whitehouse Picnic area to enjoy our sandwiches and salads together before continuing southward.

Black-headed Grosbeak

Summer Tanager

With the hope of finding some Black-bellied Whistling Ducks at Amado Ponds, we pulled off there for about 30 minutes. They weren’t present but we delighted in seeing five (5) Wilson’s Phalaropes in breeding plumage. They were too far out for photos, but looked stunning through the spotting scope. We counted three Swallow species, one Lark Sparrow, and a Cassin’s Kingbird at the pond, and two Swainson’s Hawks overhead as we pulled out to return to I-19 South.

As we drove northward on Route 82, we turned onto the Patagonia Lake State Park road.  Here, I hoped to find a Botteri’s Sparrow since none were singing on our way into Madera Canyon. I consider this a rather odd-looking sparrow, but it was there and perched briefly several times for us.

Botteri's Sparrow

Patagonia Roadside Rest was our next stop. We had a target bird and it was co-operative. The Thick-billed Kingbird flew from one bare tree limb to another before perching each time, giving us great views!

Thick-billed Kingbird

It was getting late and we were getting hungry for something other than energy bars but Elena and Karen were up for a visit to Paton’s Yard. They knew of it and didn’t want to overlook it. It’s a good thing we stopped, because the Violet-crowned Hummingbird came in to the feeder twice while we were there, but when we returned the next morning, it didn’t. However, the next morning, on the other side of Paton’s yard, I found a male Common Ground-Dove among many Inca Doves. Smaller than the Incas, its dark wing spots and streaks sets it apart from the Inca’s scaly plumage. Maybe I was more ecstatic about this dove than they were but Elena and Karen dutifully came over and looked at the rather drab bird as I explained how it differed from the Incas. They noticed its red eye and red-based bill. Without my camera in this morning light, Elena tried taking pictures with her iPhone but it didn’t pull in the doves.

On Monday, Day #2, we drove over to Sierra Vista and began our birding at Ramsey Canyon Preserve there. We arrived around 10:30 a.m. and enjoyed the continued cool clear weather we had experienced on Day #1. Everyone in the world seems to have heard about Ramsey Canyon so this destination was high on my Birding Pals’ list of places to visit. I was hoping to see the Elegant Trogon there but our late arrival worked against us; earlier birders had tracked them from the lower elevations to higher ones and when we reached Bledsoe Loop, I said, “No more. We’ll go over to Huachuca Canyon tomorrow morning where I’ve heard there are three pairs.”

Instead, as we walked the trail in Ramsay Canyon, vireos were singing — perhaps more than I can detect by voice — but I knew they weren’t the Red-eyed that Elena tried to pull on me. We heard and saw the Plumbeous Vireo, Hutton’s Vireo and Warbling Vireo. Lots of Yellow Warblers were enjoying the forest, as were a Townsend’s Warbler and Painted Redstart.  The Hepatic and Western Tanagers were a delight for me (and my birding pals) as we returned to the Visitor’s Center.

I can't bird Sierra Vista without stopping at Mary Jo's Ash Canyon Bed & Breakfast birding layout. We visited with her for over an hour before other birders wandered in and we departed.

Canyon Towhee

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Clark's Spiny Lizard on Mary Jo's stucco house

Acorn Woodpecker at suet feeder

Trying to provide Elena and Karen with the best of our birding spots with recent outstanding sightings, we drove over and up into Miller Canyon, the Beatty’s Bed and Breakfast area with its dedicated hummingbird area. It's located at the end of Miller Canyon. We were surprised to find an actual parking lot (we used to park among the trees). And, the hummingbird area (CAS), located across the wash, is now reached via a nice new bridge instead of balancing on rocks from one side to the other. The White-eared Hummingbird was recently reported there, so that was our goal, but I knew the feeders attracted a lot of other “hummers” as well.

Tom Beatty, Sr. greeted us upon arrival as we walked up from the parking area. He told me that folks had been reporting a Blue-throated Hummingbird up at the CAS, but he didn’t believe them. I knew he was a curmudgeon of sorts, so we just continued on up. There was a man from Scotland already standing there looking at something and he immediately showed us the Blue-throated Hummingbird! It was perched on a piece of bare limb in an oak tree to the left of the feeders (sitting on the chairs facing the feeders). The big hummingbird was within 10 feet of us but was not skittish and allowed me to take multiple photos. It just sat there. My photos were clear enough, I thought, that Tom, Sr., would believe the photos. But, he came up to see for himself and when he first looked with his naked eye, he was hesitant to call it.  Karen quickly handed him her binoculars and VOILA!, Tom declared it:  Blue-throated Hummingbird!  He phoned Edith to post it immediately.  Yay! I had a confirmed sighting and the excitement of observing the bird. When I mentioned it hadn’t come to any feeders, Tom explained that when it arrives, it just stays like we were seeing it. It will fly off but usually returns to its same spot. It won’t drink for maybe several days and then it will start to gorge. The Blue-throated Hummingbird is uncommon in Arizona, but likes shady mountain canyons with mixed forests of mature trees like those of Miller Canyon.

Blue-throated Hummingbird
(above and below)

We also enjoyed observing our target bird - the White-eared Hummingbird, a rare visitor from Mexico that finds its way into the canyons of Sierra Vista almost every season. We just never know which canyon it will choose to visit! The White-eared came only to the No. 6 feeder.  Other birds would feed there, too, but never when the White-eared came in - at least while we were watching.

White-eared Hummingbird
(above and below)

To wrap up our second day, I wanted to provide Elena and Karen with one of their “wish-list” birds - the Pyrrhuloxia.  Never before have I visited San Pedro House and trails without seeing at least one, if not many more. . . until this day.  Dang!  We walked through grass and snakes around the grounds close to the Visitor’s Center where the Cardinal-like Pyrrhuloxia are usually at feeders or moving around on the ground and in the shrubs.  Not today.  So, we headed for Green Kingfisher Lake via the San Pedro River trail, making one big loop.  Although Elena decided she wanted to find the Green Kingfisher, I knew that was a difficult one to locate.  I thought we would have to settle for the Belted, whose rattle we had heard, or thought we heard. But when I was entering our data into eBird, the Belted Kingfisher wasn’t on the list as a usual bird there.  Was it a Green Kingfisher we heard as we walked the river path??  The Green Kingfisher has been reported as seen there and we certainly heard a kingfisher rattle, so, in all likelihood, the Green Kingfisher was our bird!  But without a sighting of that rare visiting bird from Mexico, I’m not about to list it. 

A surprise finding at Green Kingfisher Lake was a Virginia Rail. We were still on the San Pedro River Trail when we heard a sound (repeatedly) we couldn’t identify. I thought it sounded rail-like, so I played Virginia’s and it matched. We couldn’t find it in the reeds, although Elena bushwhacked her way in that direction hoping to see it.

We did manage to see a slim, sleek Red Racer (snake), though.

Most awesome of our many sightings on our river and pond walk were the hawks in the sky as we returned toward the Visitor’s Center. From a distance, it looked at first as if there might be a territorial battle going on. I discerned one of the hawks to be a Gray Hawk but couldn’t get good views of the second. When they disappeared below the tree line, we kept walking but then discovered they were still cavorting higher in the sky.  We watched the two of them off and on over twenty minutes and were able, finally, to see that they were both Gray Hawks. What an experience to see them soar and dive in tandem, although not in tight formation. They covered quite a distance vertically and horizontally in their beautiful flight with the setting sun lighting up their very light broad wings.

Photos taken at San Pedro House:
Elena and Babs

Karen and Babs at very old, large Cottonwood tree

On our final day, Day #3, we headed into Huachuca Canyon early in search of the Elegant Trogon.  Pressure was off of me immediately because when we parked at the 1.7 mile parking area, we heard two of them barking.  Because we heard a call and response, we assumed two birds. That was confirmed when we came upon an older couple with humongous cameras on tripods set up at last year’s nest. They told us that a male and female had arrived, looked over the old nest, but flew off.  Gee, I wonder why.

Elena, Karen and the determined photographers

Western Wood-Pewee, Huachuca Canyon
The barking we originally heard moved up canyon as we did, but after a while, it was down below again and it was very close to the parking area when we finally got excellent views of a male Elegant Trogon flying first one direction and then the other, perching here and there along his little routine.  It was probably only 25 yards deep in the forest beside the trail but too many tangles for good photographs.  Binocular views, though, were top notch.

Male Elegant Trogon
Photographed by friend Brian Magnier in the Chiricahua Mts when I saw it there; June 2013.

We chatted briefly with Ann and Alan Miller who were looking for warblers. When I inquired about the location of the Northern Pygmy Owls in the parking area, they acknowledged two were present but were protective of the nest and didn't share its location with us.  However, they did share with us that they had seen a Red-faced Warbler on the car parked behind theirs with AZ plates!  That was Elenas' rental and her most-desired bird of the trip!!  It came to her when she wasn't at the car and we were unable to relocate it.

As we drove out of the canyon, Karen asked what was in the sky.  Elena called it:  “METAL LARK" !  It was a small airplane. (Like, none of us has done that before!)  Three days of birding had made us giddy, happy, lighthearted and tired.  

E-Bird calculated our sightings at 99 from 14 checklists.  Our personal checklists done each evening gave us a total of 105.  I'm more interested in the birds than comparing checklists, so, unless I find an abundance of spare time, the lists will stand as they are.

My birding pals were a delight. And, I’ll mention why they are in town because I haven’t seen a bit of news coverage about the event that’s taking place.  Their good friend from college years, Liz Fry, is a world-class Open Swimmer and is here with others to swim, dam to dam, several of our lakes, beginning with Saguaro, then Canyon, Apache, and Roosevelt. Elena and Karen are along as kayak supporters for the swimmers for two of the days, carrying water and food.   You can google Liz Fry, swimmer.  


The Daily News of Open Water Swimming

Imagine a sport where a 57-year-old women sets the bar. Imagine a sport where a 57-year-old blows the mind of some of the best endurance athletes in the world. Imagine a sport where a full-time financier is considered among the very best in the sport.

That sport would be open water swimming and that athlete would be Elizabeth Fry.

Fry took one of the world's longest open water swimming competitions, the S.C.A.R. Swim Challenge, a 4-day stage swim in Arizona, and just completely obliterated all sense of time and distance. Instead of doing the already-tough, obligatory 41.7 miles (66.9 km) in the race, Fry simply double downed 83.4 miles (123.8 km). She two-timed S.C.A.R. She went two ways instead of just one way.

While some of the world's toughest marathon swimmers were aching for massages and fatigued after swimming 66.9 kilometers against the wind and under difficult conditions, Fry simply looked at the challenge as something within her potential. Smiling before and smiling after, she managed to blow the minds of her peers in the sport, raising the bar to improbable heights.

Not that anyone was surprised, but it was still an achievement that may never be replicated. Fry gathered in the midst of seasoned marathon swimmers and went double the distance of what the rest of the hardened swimmers did. In the company of heroes, she was more than heroic.

On Day One, she swam back and forth 19 miles (30.4 km) in Saguaro Lake in 7 hours 32 minutes.
On Day Two, she swam 18 miles (28.8 km) two ways in Canyon Lake in 7 hours 27 minutes.
On Day Three, she two-wayed 34 miles (54.6 km) Apache Lake in 15 hours 47 minutes.
On Day Four, she double-crossed 12.4 miles (20 km) Roosevelt Lake 6 hours 18 minutes.

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1 comment:

  1. WOW!!! Crazy travel for great birds! Thanks for the updates from Miller and Ramsey. Ramsey is one of my favorite places to visit. Definitely a top ten place that I look forward to visiting. Sometimes it's not always the birds when we go. It's just an overall amazing area of plants, butterflies, critters and birds. But we always go first thing before the hordes of people start showing up. All my best. Chris