OWLING in Madera Canyon, Pima and Santa Cruz Counties, AZ

June 7, 2015
Being retired, I rarely have a “schedule” to follow but this month is an exception as noted in my previous post.  To enjoy a little bit more good birding prior to my upcoming foot surgery, I planned a rather quixotic OWLING adventure to Madera Canyon.  My friend and neighbor, Cindy, said she would gladly join me for a quick round-trip adventure.

Sunday’s mid-afternoon highway traffic was light so we were able to reach Madera Canyon to begin birding at Santa Rita Lodge at 5:00 p.m.  I was still scanning the ground and numerous feeders to see what birds were present when Cindy said, “What’s that?” She pointed to a feeder in the yard below and just beyond the store’s deck. OMG!  

Perched on the rear lip of the seed retainer, fully-framed by the horizontal opening, was a gorgeous adult male ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAK. Photo perfect. But I was too stunned to move.  I’ve only ever seen this grosbeak on the east-coast; it's not one I would expect here. It’s black head, light beak and reddish bib (or breast) were set off by the white belly that extended thinly up into its shoulder. Two white wing patches - one solid; the other broken like dabs of white paint on each feather of a wing section were details I didn't really need for this one-of-a-kind bird.

I reached for my camera just as the RBGR dropped down into the deep seed feeder totally hidden from view.  I didn’t move; I wanted to see it again.  I wanted to document the sighting. Cindy told me a mouse was running over my shoe; I didn’t care. I stared. Every now and again I could see the black of the bird’s head. When it turned and lifted its head slightly, its very thick curved-culmen light-colored beak looked white. I waited; I took photos each time it lifted its head from its constant feeding.  Would I never get a diagnostic photo??

It often seems that birds come and go so quickly that I can’t get good photos. This time, the bird stayed and stayed - but mostly out of sight.  Ah, it lifted higher; click..click.  The grosbeak was either filling up or it noticed the attention I was giving it. As if to get a better look at its surroundings beyond the feeder, the bird stood tall enough that its red breast showed.  Click…click….click.  

Just then, a White-winged Dove flew into the same feeder and the Rose-breasted Grosbeak took off, not to be seen by us again that evening.  But it  must have been there for a good five minutes.  

Rose-breasted Grosbeak (male)
The shop was closing.  When Lorie came out, I asked if anyone else had seen it there today.  She said, “Yes”, someone had posted a sighting.  That was the “pinch of reality” I needed.  Having just driven about 150 miles, gotten out of the car and almost immediately seen such a stunning bird was almost more than I could fathom.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak (male)

Other birds in the grosbeak family, the Black-headed and Blue Grosbeaks were anticipated and observed at the same feeding station. I really like the attractive Blue Grosbeaks.

Male Blue Grosbeak  (top and bottom)

Entertaining us by running face-first down on tree trunks was this White-breasted Nuthatch.
White-breasted Nuthatch

A family of three Acorn Woodpeckers were noisily active on their utility-pole home close to our viewing area.

Speaking of noisy, here's another bird good at that:

Mexican Jay

Another birder, Vic Nelson, arrived at the viewing area right after the Rose-breasted Grosbeak flew off.  Since he's staying over at the Lodge with his wife, he may get to see the RBGR tomorrow.  But it didn’t show for him before we headed to Proctor Road to see if we’d get lucky and hear the BUFF-COLLARED NIGHTJAR. 

Prior to sunset, I birded lightly and Cindy focused on the Arizona Coues White-tailed deer that were emerging from deep in the canyon behind us (north) to a higher level. She counted 9 or 10 before we lined up along the dirt road to listen on the north side for the Buff-collared Nightjar's call.


Sunset on Proctor Road

Approximately 8 or 9 birders gathered in front of Campsite #1 just beyond the cattle guard.  I parked in front of Site #2 and Vic was behind me. We heard the first “cu..cu..cuk..cuk..cuk..cuk ..cuk..chee-ah” from the Buff-collared Nightjar at 7:45 p.m.as we faced southward.  Not a birder, but interested in all of nature, Cindy was excited at the sound of its call, too.  

After listening to it several times, we turned to talk to one another when right beside us at eye-level, a Nightjar flew from behind us, across the street, to a slight opening between mesquites   We walked slowly in that direction.  Just then, a car drove in on the dirt road, passed us and parked well beyond any of the rest of us. We did not get a good ID view of the bird: its short tail made it look squat and square. With wide rounded wings, not the long pointed ones of a Lesser or Common Nighthawk, and seeming smaller than a Whip-poor-will, Vic assigned its silhouette to that of Buff-collared Nightjar.

We listened to calls of Mexican Whip-poor-wills from various locations, some distant enough from others that we counted three (3) of them. 

We also heard a Common Poor-will prior to leaving the area to discover how many owls we might find back at Santa Rita Lodge. Believe it or not, I had forgotten to take my field notebook with me and all that I recall hearing at our 8:15 p.m. stop at the Lodge were at least three Elf Owls. Cindy identified one of them through its "mew" call that she had listened to on my iPhone app during our drive down.
Next, we drove up the hill to the end of the road at Whitehouse Picnic area (est. 6500’ elevation) where we got out, walked around on the dark parking lot, and listened. One Mexican Whip-poor-will called from nearby.  Just as I was ready to record its call, another car arrived and the bird flew off.  We heard another, and we heard a Western Screech Owl and another Common Poor-will up there.

Vic led the way back down the hill. Driving with our windows open, when he hit his brakes, I did, too, assuming he heard an owl.  Cindy yelled, “BEAR!”  A Black Bear had crossed the road in front of Vic who, after letting it pass, continued on down the hill.  Cindy had a good flashlight, so I backed up to where she had the Black Bear fully visible - sort of sitting on its haunches looking out at us - about 25 yards away.  Another car was moving very slowly down the hill, so the bear rolled onto its feet and moved deeper into the forest. That sighting was definitely the HIGHLIGHT of Cindy’s visit to Madera Canyon!

Still missing one of my target owls, we drove the side road up to Bog Springs Campground but didn’t hear anything.  So, once again, I returned to Santa Rita Lodge where, finally, we heard the Whiskered Screech Owl!  

Driving out of Madera Canyon at nighttime put us in the middle of more wildlife.  Young Coues Deer were crossing the road.  I thought they looked small enough and skinny-legged enough to be fawns, but Cindy said she didn’t see spots. They were definitely young and when two crossed the road and one stayed on the other side, I stopped and waited for the remaining one to make its choice: it stayed on its side, allowing me to pass through.

Home again at 12:15 a.m., I was glad we had made the run south. It was totally rewarding and spectacular in so many many ways.

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27 awesome species recorded here:


  1. Cool birds Ms. Babs! Those Rose-breasted Grosbeak photos are pretty good! That is quite the collection of nocturnal birds that you guys heard.

  2. It's such a phenomenal feeling to enjoy so many special birds at one visit. Luck was with me!