Monday, 9 January 2017

Listing Blitz: Part 1

I posted this one a while back and it disappeared on me, so I’ve had to re-write it. I wonder how close it is to the original haha. If you read it the first time you won’t gain much by reading it again, but if you missed the first one then here we go:

July 30, 2016 continued

After spending a great couple days in the Huachucas, I headed back west towards Tucson for the last couple days in the Southeast. Since it was still early in the afternoon when I left Miller Canyon I decided to take the long way, around the south end of the Santa Ritas, and try for a few missing life birds on the way.

On this loop I learned a valuable lesson in researching specific directions before heading on a quest like this. My first planned stop was the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, which is one of the most reliable locations in North America for Thick-billed Kingbird and Violet-crowned Hummingbird. According to my map the preserve was just off the main highway, so it couldn't be that hard to find, could it? You would think not, but I came and passed the community of Patagonia without any sign or turnoff for the preserve. I thought maybe it was further down, but as I kept driving there was still couldn’t find it. I could have turned around and tried to look again, but I’d been thinking of coming back the next morning anyways when the birds would be more active, so I kept on going.

The highway took me down to Nogales by the Mexican border, and after driving through a border patrol stop with drug dogs and the whole nine yards I continued north to Rio Rico. Standing water in the fields around here was supposed to be good for Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, and Tropical Kingbirds were found along this stretch of highway as well. Following a similar trend, I hadn’t looked up where exactly these fields were, but I thought it would be straight forward. The fields just off the exit had no water in them, so I kept going down the road looking for more promising habitat. This took me through thick mesquite habitat, not ideal for ducks! But there were lots of colourful birds like Yellow-breasted Chats, Blue Grosbeaks, Northern Cardinals, and Summer Tanagers singing and flitting around which were nice to see. An adult Gray Hawk teed up for me on a hydro pole posed for a photo. 
Gray Hawk
I stopped for each kingbird I saw on a wire, but I couldn’t transform any of the Westerns or Cassin’s into a Tropical one. However, at one of these stops I spotted a couple raptors soaring overhead. The lower bird was a Red-tail, but the second looked like it might have been the reason I’d been scanning every single Turkey Vulture for the past week. I got the scope out, and although it was very high and the overcast light was dull I was able to make out a dark hawk with gray flight feathers and a striped tail, flying with a dihedral. Not the best view of my lifer Zone-tailed Hawk, but I was happy to get the bird under my belt anyways.

The road looped back to the highway without me seeing either my duck or kingbird targets, so I continued north to the Amado Water Treatment Plant. It wasn’t anything special with only a single pond, but that pond was exactly where it was supposed to be, as was a Neotropic Cormorant that was sitting on some of the equipment. Tick!

From there I stopped in at a Green Valley McDonalds to bum some wifi and plan for the next day. The first thing I looked up was how to actually get to the Patagonia Preserve, and learned that you had to drive off the highway into the community, then take a back road in. Good to know! Next I evaluated my “hit list” to see where I was sitting with my target birds. I’d done really well so far, having tallied 37 lifers in the past 8 days, but there were still a handful of birds left. These included the whistling duck, kingbirds, and hummer I’d fumbled on that afternoon, as well as Harris’s and Common Black-Hawks, Inca and Common Ground-Doves, Elf and Whiskered Screech-Owls, Plain-capped Starthroat, Gilded Flicker (none visually confirmed yet), Chihuahuan Raven, Black-capped Gnatcatcher, and Olive Warbler. I only had 2 full days left, and I’d already set aside my last full day to spend hiking in Madera Canyon. So, that meant I only had the evening plus the next day to do as much damage to the list as I could. I did a bit of eBird research, made some plans, and then headed to Madera Canyon for the evening to try for owls.

When I got there I stopped to watch the hummers a while at the Santa Rita Lodge. Always a nice way to relax after a long day! But I wasn’t only relaxing, because I also hoped I’d get to see the Plain-capped Starthroat that had been coming to the feeders for the last couple weeks. The bird showed up daily, but not often and always briefly, and I’d struck out on this big hummingbird on my previous visit. I spent the better part of an hour and enjoyed the usual Broad-bills, Black-chins, and a pair of Magnificents, but no Mexican vagrant made its presence known. I did get a blurry photo of the male Magnificent though. They’re really neat since in most lighting the head looks black, but when it hits them just right bam! Purple on top and emerald on bottom. Gorgeous!

Blurry male Magnificent Hummingbird, head-on

By 7:30 it was starting to get dark, so I headed up canyon to start listening for owls. I got to the top of the road and walked and listened a while, but it was silent with neither owl nor nightjar calling to the twilight. Next I tried at the amphitheatre, and a couple there had just heard a Whiskered Screech-Owl sing 10 minutes before. Sweet, hope! I stood and listened, and maybe another 10 minutes later I caught the faint bark-like calls of an owl coming from far up-slope. Elf Owl! It was the kind of distance where you’re not quite sure if you heard it or not, but as time went on I kept catching snatches of call, so I hiked down the trail and up the slope towards the call. Eventually I clambered right underneath the tree the owl was barking from. As I was trying to get a glimpse of the bird I slipped on the steep slope, and the noise frightened the bird off. Damn, so close!

From there I climbed back down to the path in the hopes of hearing it again. As I wandered I saw some eye-shine through the trees, and getting closer I saw the big brown eyes of a Ringtail staring back at me. These nocturnal creatures are slimmer than their Raccoon cousins, with little round ears and a long, striped tail that gives them their name. They range all throughout the arid southwest including Nevada, but this was the first time I’d laid eyes on one. I got to watch it for the better part of 20 minutes as it foraged through the leaf litter and munched on something or other I couldn’t make out. I even got some video clips of it in the beam of my headlamp, but unfortunately most video players (Youtube included) can’t make anything out on them. It’s really too bad, since on the camera screen you could see it alright. Ah well, still really cool to get to see one of these nocturnal guys.

The owl didn’t return, so I tried a couple more spots further down the canyon. I didn’t have luck there, but as I checked some recordings I discovered that Whiskered Screech-Owls can also make a bark type call. While the Elf Owl recording was definitely sharper and higher, in hindsight I couldn’t remember how my bird from earlier in the night had sounded. No longer confident with my call from, I went back to the amphitheater and hoped I could clarify the ID.

When waiting and listening at night time always seems to pass by slowly. But it seems to do so even more so when you don’t want to “cheat” and play a tape, so you’re just listening to the silence and praying that your owl will cooperate. Well after 20 minutes of that I finally heard an owl, and like I suspected it didn’t sound quite right for Elf Owl. Over the next 40 minutes 2 birds occasionally called back and forth, and I also wandered back and forth through the woods trying to follow them and get a look. They weren’t THAT cooperative, but they did give me some other vocalizations that made the cut for the screech-owl. Although the bird from before may have been an Elf, I took it off my list and substituted it for the screech for now.

By this time it was 10:30pm, not super late but I was feeling tired after a long day. I had been thinking of herping as well, but I made the game time decision to call it a night early. The owls weren’t very talkative anyway, so I figured I’d get a bit of sleep, try again for Elf Owl in the wee hours of the morning, then road-cruise my way down back to Patagonia for dawn to begin my day of full-on listing.

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