Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Listing Blitz: Part 2

July 31 2016

My alarm woke me at 2:45am, 15 minutes later I'd broken camp and was up-canyon trying again for Elf Owls. I spent an hour listening in various spots, but other than one of the same Whiskered Screech-Owls from earlier that night and another Ringtail that ran across the road no other nocturnal creatures were about. From there I started driving my way down toward Patagonia while looking for snakes on the road.

I didn't luck out in the herp department, but made it to the grasslands around Patagonia as dawn broke. I stopped at a couple spots along the highway to try to unsuccessfully turn ravens into Chihuahuan ones, but was rewarded with a dawn chorus of Cassin's, Botteri's, Rufous-winged, and Grasshopper Sparrows, as well as a couple of Montezuma Quail.

With my new directions I found my way to the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve without any issue, and the way in I heard then saw the day's first lifer, a group of Inca Doves. Their coos of "no hope" tried to put a damper on my listing prospects for the day, but I'd do my best to prove them wrong!

I arrived at the preserve and the place seemed like a jungle. Massive cottonwoods were surrounded by lush thickets of ash and willow, and the woods were loaded with birds! Yellow-billed Cuckoos clacked and crept through the shrubbery along with jems like Northern Cardinal, Summer Tanager, Blue Grosbeak, Lazuli Bunting, and stupid numbers of Yellow-breasted Chats.

Shrubs and Cottonwoods along Sonoita Creek

Yellow-billed Cuckoo
The more open savannah type areas hosted numerous excited Cassin's Kingbirds and a couple pairs of Vermilion Flycatchers. I scanned all these Tyrannids for one of my other targets, and eventually found not one but 3 different Thick-billed Kingbirds calling along the creek. A group of 4 Black Vultures perched on a snag nearby one of them too, my best ever looks at this species.

Open grassland

It started to rain so I took shelter under a visitor centre roof to wait it out and watch the hummingbird feeders. It was fun to watch half a dozen Broad-billed Hummingbirds tried to keep the Black-chins and an Anna's off the feeders. Just before I left a Violet-crowned Hummingbird joined the frenzy, and I got to enjoy point-blank views of this uniquely coloured lifer. Its brown and white body was definitely plainer than most of the other hummingbirds I'd seen, but its large size, bright red bill and orange crown made it a real treat to watch.

What a spot! I was really glad I'd decided to come here in the morning when the birds were active, because the numbers and diversity of birds here were just spectacular. I would have loved to spend more time there, but I'd achieved all 3 of my targets for the area, had other places to be, and it was still raining besides. So after spending the better part of 2 hours at enjoying Patagonia I decided to move on.

On the way out I stopped in some sparser mesquite away from the water and picked up a few calling Northern Beardless-Tyrannulets. They played hard to get and didn't allow looks, so I continued on to check out the Paton's feeders. They weren't super-jumping in terms of hummingbirds, but I got to see another Violet-crowned as well as get better looks at some Inca Doves coming to the seed.

From there I worked my way towards the border and stopped at Kino Springs, which was apparently another good spot for Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks. No ducks in the pond there, but I was able to get my first proper views of a male Varied Bunting in the scope as he perched on a wire. I also heard one of my few Crissal Thrashers of the trip calling from further back in the brush too.

Next was Rio Rico for a second round, and this time I stopped at a trail head by the Santa Cruz River. Here there was a nice riparian area, and although there were no ducks in the river a handful of songbirds kept me occupied. Soon a flock of my first "Mexican" Mallards flew over, and they gave me hope that my whistling-ducks would do the same. Sure enough, some squeaky calls later gave me enough warning to glimpse 2 flocks of the lanky ducks through the cottonwoods as they flew past on the other side of the river. Nice!

But the fun wasn't over yet, because not long after the ducks had past I heard the rapid call of my other target for the area, Tropical Kingbird. It headed downriver towards it got good looks at a pair of them by the bridge. I didn't know it at the time, but with this bird my life list hit 500 species, all within the ABA Area. A milestone I'd hoped for but hadn't quite expected to reach on this trip. Clearly I was doing well.

With both birds in the bag, I birded my way back to the car to move on. But the biggest surprise of the stop was just before I left, when I glimpsed a brilliant bird fly out from a bush and across the river to a willow on the other side. Although the look was brief  I was more than confident on the ID: blue head, green back, and red rump, it could only be a male Painted Bunting! Another life bird, and definitely not one even on my radar down here. I found out after the fact that they interrupt fairly regularly to southern Arizona after breeding. Who knew? It was a touch too late on the timing though, it would have been a great one for my 500th! Look and pish as I might it didn't reappear, so I had to let it go and head back to saguaro country.

Next on the schedule was Harris's Hawk. This beautiful hawk became my favorite bird when I first started birding, after watching footage of a group of them cooperatively hunt a rabbit on a David Attenbourough documentary. While the Sandhill Crane had since taken its place as my Totem Bird (under Dave Henderson's rules of the Totem Bird), Harris's Hawk still has a place in my heart and I was eager to see one.

Finding one here wasn't super simple though. They live all through the desert around Tucson, but they're not really a species you can pin down to a certain location. Instead, one's best bet is simply driving around in their habitat and keeping an eye out for them atop saguaros or telephone poles. Well, today was my day for driving around and looking for birds, so I headed up Old Spanish Trail east of Tucson to try my luck. That luck kept running stronger than I'd hoped, and a nice adult teed up nicely on a hydro poll for me. Seventh lifer of the day.

By now it was 4pm, not an ideal time to try for songbirds. But, I was close to Mount Lemmon where Olive Warblers bred, so I set my cross-hairs for my last target for the day. I needed to kill time before evening herping anyway, plus the Catalina Highway to the top was supposed to be gorgeous. I'd driven the bottom stretch of it our first night in Tucson, but this time I was able to take photos in the daylight.

Drive up the Catalina Highway

Santa Catalinas

I then continued higher than we'd gone that first night, and got some pretty spectacular views for it.

View from a lookout higher up

Near the top I finally made it to conifer forest where the warblers could be found. Not surprising for the time of day, both stops were virtually dead of bird activity. Well, I couldn't push my luck too far I suppose. I ate a can of soup for supper and enjoyed the quiet woods before heading back down to get in position for herping.

As I got back down to the desert the day was wearing away and storm clouds were building over the mountains. This all lined up perfectly for my herping plans. The idea was to head off down a back road through good habitat and wait for night to fall and the storm to pass. Once it did, I would drive it back in towards down and then drive some of the paved roads once the traffic died off. Perfect!

Sunset on the Sonoran

I followed the road to just before a big wash then got out to wait. Suddenly flicker flew in to a saguaro right by the road, and the flicker had yellow under-wings. I'd heard some flickers in the desert earlier in the trip that were likely Gilded by habitat, but this was the first one I'd actually got eyes on (except perhaps for the one that got away in Nevada). So another lifer for the day!

Eventually it got dark and the storm hit. I had been hoping for a roving storm that would get the ground wet and then move along so all the snakes would come out to play, but unfortunately it had different ideas. I stayed in the humid car as the rain pounded for over an hour, biding my time until I could hit the road and find some critters. By then it hadn't quite stopped but had let up a bit, but I was eager get out so I started to cruise.

But as they say: "The best laid plans of mice and men..." Not far down the road I saw truck headlights parked opposite a raging torrent. Of course, rain in the desert causes flash floods, and having one in between me and the main road put a quick end to my plans. Stupid of me for not anticipating this scenario! After a while the truck decided the waters had gone down enough for it and with a bit of a run crossed the wash, then he stopped beside me and warned me about taking my sedan through it. I told him I wasn't thinking of it, and instead was prepared to spend the night reclined in the passenger seat with the 4-ways on haha.

A few other trucks coming back from town forded the wash, but I settled in to sleep. A couple hours later I woke up to find the waters had finally subsided, so with some sleep under my belt I was finally able to get some road cruising in. I drove out to the paved road, then spent the next few hours around the outskirts of Tucson before cruising my way back to Madera Canyon. I saw a number of the ever-present toads, but sadly in the reptile department my only find was this dead-on-road Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake.

Dead-on-road Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake

Although the herping wasn't terribly productive the day overall was a huge success. I'd connected with over half of my remaining target birds plus the bonus bunting, got to see the world from the top of Mount Lemmon, learned a good lesson about flash flooding, and was now in position to spend my last whole day birding Madera Canyon.


  1. Some fabulous spots there, Mark....Patagonia-Sonoita is a real treat, isn't it, as is Mt Lemmon. Gotta watch for those flash floods, however.
    I'm looking forward to your Madera Canyon tales....that is another awesome place!

    1. Thanks Allen! Patagonia-Sonoita really blew me away, a gorgeous spot and definitely deserved more time than I gave it. I'll be back down in AZ/NM for season this summer doing Spotted Owl surveys, so I'm looking forward to some more thorough, less rushed exploring down there