San Rafael Grasslands-Patagonia, Santa Cruz County, AZ

Saturday, January 9th:
As frequently happens, I awoke prior to my alarm going off — this time set for 2:30 a.m. I was excited about heading out on a Desert Rivers Audubon field trip to a new place where I hoped to see a Life Bird — a bird less than 6” in size called Baird’s Sparrow. 

The uncommon Baird’s Sparrow breeds in the northern prairies of western and central Canada and our most northern prairie states. In winter it flies to north-central Mexico, unless it finds the grasslands of southeast Arizona inviting. Already this season, it had been spotted at the San Rafael grasslands near Patagonia so that was my quest.

With Dr. Dave Pearson (ASU ornithologist) in the passenger seat and Barb Meding driving her car, another birder (Nancy) and I shared the back seat when we departed from our meeting spot in Tempe at 4:30 a.m.  We would meet the rest of our small group in Patagonia 2.5 hours later.

We birded Patagonia City Park while waiting for some of the birders to arrive at the colorfully mural-painted public restroom building there. The known Hepatic Tanager was located but the more rare Yellow-throated Warbler was a no-show in the below-freezing temperature.

It was 20°F when we arrived at the short-grass prairie designated as an Important Bird Area for its 85 square miles of  contiguous (not fragmented) grassland habitat.  Both year-round birds and wintering species of sparrows, pipits, longspurs and raptors thrive in the yellow-tan grass. Just days earlier, our driver, Barb, had come upon a Short-eared Owl perched on a fence post there. As a group, we hoped for, perhaps, a sighting of some Chestnut-collared Longspurs, a Sprague’s Pipit, Grasshopper Sparrows, Prairie Falcon and/or Short-eared Owl. 

The frozen mud of San Rafael Valley Road led through beautiful alligator juniper and live oak habitat until it opened out into the beautiful grassland valley.
San Rafael Grasslands framed by snow-covered mountains.
Headwaters of the Santa Cruz River are located in this area
Would you believe? Among the first three birds huddled on top of a barbed-wire fence was my target bird, BAIRD’S SPARROW, with two very similar-looking Savannah Sparrows.

Baird's Sparrow (internet photo)
Unlike the Savannah with chest stripes extending down along its flanks and belly, the Baird’s “necklace” of sparse wide streaks stops at the end of the breast revealing a white belly. That was my clue to the one bird being BAIRD’S, not Savannah. The two dark spots at the bottom of its ear patch were visible, too.

Highlights as we drove to the end of the grasslands road and back included: Peregrine Falcon, Loggerhead Shrike, Sprague’s Pipit, 3 species of towhee (Canyon, Green-tailed and Spotted), and the Lilian’s subspecies of Eastern Meadowlark (much lighter than the Eastern with more white tail feathers), and a male and female Northern Harrier.

The Lilian's subspecies of the Eastern Meadowlark found in SE Arizona has a white cheek and is lighter overall than the Eastern Meadowlark (internet photo)
Rare (for Arizona) Sprague's Pipit  (internet photo)
Gorgeous male Northern Harrier (internet photo)

By the time we left the grasslands, the frozen mud on the hill down to Harshaw Creek Road had thawed. Barb was uncomfortable with the tail end of the car fish-tailing in the deep mud almost to the point of taking us sideways down the steep hill, so Dave took over the driving.

Once on Harshaw Creek Road, we again began to see good birds. A covey of nine Montezuma Quail crossing the road in front of us was extremely gratifying. It had taken me several years to find my first one (when I saw several, thanks to some good birding friends who knew where and how to locate them).

My photo of Montezuma Quail two years ago
Also two years ago

Another great treat along this road was a pocket of Azure Bluebirds, the name given to the subspecies of Eastern Bluebird that transitions through the mountains of southern Arizona to Mexico and northern Guatemala.The male birds were very bright blue and easy to follow as they flew from limb to limb, seeming to never stop. Many of the birds behaved that way today; thus, so many drawn from the internet so I could enjoy the birds instead of taking pictures.

Azure Bluebird (internet photo)

From Harshaw Creek Road, we continued on over to Tucson Audubon's  Paton Center for Hummingbirds (formerly Paton's yard) to check out the birds and enjoy our lunch at the picnic table.The temperature had risen to 48° F but winds began to pick up and clouds gathered. Birds that I found interesting here were the Broad-billed Hummingbird who has left the Phoenix Valley and the Bridled Titmouse with its handsome contrasting facial pattern.

With one more stop in the center of Patagonia before heading home, we took a quick look through the wide median full of trees and birds where we saw a Cassin's Kingbird - which seemed very early to me (not close to springtime).

While we may not have seen a great number of species (my total was 57 out of the 60 seen by the whole group), we saw birds that are very difficult to find and that made it an extraordinarily great birding adventure. I arrived home around 5 p.m., tired but thrilled with the birds that revealed themselves to me today!

* * *


1 comment:

  1. Do you know that we did the same route on that day??!! I didn't do San Rafael but I did the cienagas instead. I got my grasshopper there but no Baird's :( they can be tricky to spot! Congrats! Love that whole area. And yes, it was COLD!