Quest for PINE FLYCATCHER - a Mexican first-time (known) border crosser to the USA

Saturday, June 11th
Due to potential rain, we camped out at Muriel Neddermeyer’s house on Friday night instead of at Aliso Springs in the northeast corner of the Santa Rita Mountains (opposite side from Madera and Florida Canyons).

The three of us — Muriel, Chrissy Kondrat-Smith and I — managed to depart the Chandler area by 3:30 a.m. and turned on to Gardner Canyon Road by 5:45 a.m. on our quest to see the PINE FLYCATCHER, an ABA Code 5 Bird (American Birding Association - first time sighting in the USA). 

Had the road to see this bird been easy and accessible, many more birders (including me) would have already visited this migrant. Lacking an appropriate high-clearance four-wheel drive vehicle, I responded quickly to a Facebook post by Muriel and Chrissy. I didn’t know that Chrissy had tried to go for the bird last week but ran into car problems.  She drove a 2001 Jeep Cherokee that was new to her but had been checked out by a mechanic as being okay for such a trip.

Now, having taken it to a new mechanic, four of us were off for a second try by Chrissy, having picked up Ken Murphy (who had been with her last week) in Tucson.

Google Maps provided me with a “teardrop” for Aliso Springs with no roads accessing it. But Chrissy, who works with AZ Game & Fish Dept. does a lot of survey work and is accustomed to driving into primitive locations with her hand-held GPS.

From the well-graded gravel Gardner Canyon Road off of State Route 83, we turned onto a more remote rough and steep dirt road.  

We met birder Moe Bell at that junction where he left his all-wheel drive Subaru to become the fifth person to join Chrissy and her “new” monster vehicle as we crawled up hill and down over washed out gulleys strewn with boulders and rocks resting on loose gravel. Nasty sharply-pointed rocks capable of piercing tires and tearing up a suspension system on a less muscular car were part of the constant obstacle course. After ten (10) miles of Chrissy’s skilled driving over that very rough terrain, we arrived at Aliso Springs where several other cars and a handful of birders were already enjoying the border-crossing PINE FLYCATCHER. In the family of tyrant flycatchers, this bird looks very much like other “empidomax” flycatchers so much credit goes to Dave Stejskal who heard and identified it at the end of May.

L-R: Moe Bell, Ken Murphy, Muriel Neddermeyer, Chrissy Kondrat-Smith and me (front left)

Pine Flycatcher

More seasoned birders than I called it a “confiding” bird; it was neither shy nor timid. Rather, it appeared as curious about us as we were of it.  Having already built a nest under watchful birder eyes since its first confirmed sighting by Dave Stejskal on May 30th, we searched for a male mate without success. So, the female arrived, built a nest and sat on it occasionally as we watched. Can we assume eggs? Birders will be traveling from far and wide to see this rarity that flew up from Mexico to settle in an extremely remote but lovely area of Arizona’s “sky island” mountains and I expect they will keep us informed of any nesting activity in this pine-oak woodland clearing with water access.

Using the banding code for Pine Flycatcher (PIFL) Chrissy stroked the above message on her rear window

Also present at that site were several Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers and a Scott's Oriole

Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher

Scott's Oriole


"Selfie" by Muriel
Having spent a reasonable amount of time at Aliso Springs, we headed off to Cave Canyon within this maze of "off-road" roads to look for another rare bird that traveled a greater distance probably than the Pine Flycatcher. A RED-HEADED WOODPECKER was spotted here several weeks ago and neither Ken nor I had yet seen it. With easier access but a less curious bird, it took us a while before Chrissy spotted it flying in to the camping area.

Also spotted in that general area was a Red-tailed Hawk's nest with a young bird perched, calling and watching.

We celebrated our rare bird sightings with a stop at the "Coffee Grounds" in Patagonia before visiting Tucson Audubon's Paton House hummingbird feeders to see the Violet-crowned Hummingbird and to check out the changes being made to this property since Tucson Audubon began managing it this year.

As if this had not already proven to be a magical day of birding, we got to see not one but three YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOOS along Blue Haven Road as we left Patagonia. In all of our birding throughout the day, Muriel compiled nine checklists from our various locations for a total of 72 species.

Who could have asked for a more thrilling birding experience than one Extremely Rare PINE FLYCATCHER, a Rare RED-HEADWOODPECKER and an early view of the just-arriving YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO?!

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