Lifers indicated in bold
This was a trip I should have over the summer. Nearly every resource I consulted about birding in Arizona suggested I go to the sky islands of Southeast Arizona in July or August for my best chance of seeing 500 in a year. These “islands,” which are isolated mountains surrounded by radically different lowland environments, are among the most biologically diverse regions in North America, supporting plant and animal life that is widespread in Mexico and Central America, but is otherwise endangered or not supposed to be in the United States, such as trogons, coatimundis, Jaguars, and some of the highest diversity of reptiles (including birds) in the country. Why would I even think of going to Arizona during the hottest time of the year? The Monsoons. Monsoon rains in July and August create a "second summer" for the sky islands, offering a diverse cast of hummingbirds, flycatchers, mimids, galliformes, owls, nightjars, sparrows, and the alluring Elegant Trogon, much needed relief from the summer heat. The monsoon season can also be a good time to look for some of the rarities for which SE Arizona is famous – including Plain-capped Starthroat, Sinaloa Wren, Rufous-capped Warbler, Flame-colored Tanager, Tufted Flycatcher, and others. I was promised this trip if I could keep my grades up over the spring, but unfortunately, when I learned around finals that there was little hope of turning my grades around, my prospects of going to Arizona were looking bleak, if at all. While other birders were enjoying the bounty of the monsoons, I was in summer school desperately waiting for fall migration to begin so I could have a chance to revive my eBird checklist streak. If I had been able to make it to Arizona over the summer, my next alternative was to go to either Southern California or Albuquerque in November, as I discussed on The Bird Herd with Drew Beamer and Jodhan Fine. When I was offered a chance to go to Arizona in November, I literally jumped at the chance. However, as I would soon discover, there was a catch. We would be staying at a time share in Scottsdale instead of Sierra Vista or Tuscon as I had initially imagined. I would make it to Arizona, but it would not be the ideal southwest trip I had imagined. How would I make this work? To compensate for the less convenient birding location, I had come up with an itinerary that would give me the best of Arizona’s three ecological realms: one day birding around Maricopa County to get all the common species of the Sonoran desert, one day in southeast Arizona with Max Leibowitz for some of the species I had hoped to see over the summer in the sky islands and the dry grasslands of the Chihuahuan desert, and one to head to Flagstaff and back for southern Rocky Mountain birds. This plan felt a little rushed, but with only three days to bird, I had to be as efficient as possible. When there’s a will, there’s a way. Hopefully…
When we got to Phoenix, there was a setback: we didn’t have a place to stay at the time share, and we’re forced to stay at a more expensive vacation club owned by Four Seasons.
My first full day of birding in Arizona was off to a slow start, too slow for someone with intense time constraints. I started by walking around the resort grounds, but it was unsettlingly quiet, not even a Cactus Wren or a Great-tailed Grackle was calling. Was this a sign I was setting myself up for failure? My plan for the day was to work in a circle: start at a Berkshire Hathaway store at the request of my mom, and from there bird at Gilbert Water Ranch, Veteran’s Oasis Park, a neighborhood pond in Gilbert where Clark’s Grebes were often seen, the “thrasher spot” on Baseline road and Salome Highway, White Tank Mountain, and Lake Pleasant, then listen for Western Screech Owls on the resort grounds. As we got on the road, it didn’t take long before I saw my first new bird of the trip: a Say’s Phoebe, followed by a Gila Woodpecker and an Abert’s Towhee. I was off to a slow start, but it was better than no start. While my mom was focused on taking a selfie in front of the Berkshire Hathaway in Scottsdale, I set my sights on the local bird life in the parking lot. I found an Anna’s Hummingbird, a Brewer’s Sparrow, heard a Gilded Flicker, and my most wanted bird from Phoenix: a flyover Rosy-faced Lovebird. Like the numerous parrots of Florida, Texas, California, and northeastern states, suburban Phoenix is home to feral population of these popular cagebirds that either escaped or were intentionally released, originally native to southwest Africa. For these parrots, Arizona is close enough in climate to their native Kalahari Desert for them to thrive, making use of abandoned Gila Woodpecker holes in the absence of weaver colonies. The lovebirds nested successfully, and the feral population is sustainable enough to be counted by ABA birders. Having scored the lovebird, we moved on to the next spot, where along the way, I added Gambel's Quail to the day list...
At first glance, the name "Water Ranch" might be confusing to a person not from Arizona, as I was when I was researching what spots I should go to in Maricopa County on the first day. Instead of raising keeping animals, the "ranch" is part of the Town of Gilbert's effort to balance water resource development with wildlife habitat, eventually leading to the creation of the Riparian Preserve, organized based on plant communities, ranging from marshlands to desert riparian and upland vegetation. As would be expected from a diversity of habitats, the ranch has an impressive list of over 300 bird species as well as many other animals. We started at the pond in the northwest corner of the park, which didn't have any birds of interest, except for a few Mexican Ducks. Moving on, we checked the flowers to see what hummingbirds were attending them, mostly Anna's and a female Costa's Hummingbird. Elsewhere in the preserve, I saw a group of four American Avocets on a pond, a Plumbeous Vireo in the brush, tons of Abert's Towhees and Verdins, a Rufous-crowned Sparrow, a Spotted Towhee, and a Black-throated Gray Warbler. Another birder stopped us to ask about a dark raptor that could've been a Zone-tailed Hawk, but was eventually confirmed as a dark Red-tail.
The next spot we went to is Veteran's Oasis Park, where a late-staying Bell's Vireo had been reported. The first bird we looked for in the park was not the vireo, but Burrowing Owls at a nest site. We didn't see any owls there, so they must have moved on to a winter roost. While I searched for the Bell's, a Prairie Falcon soaring over the trail, a Lawrence's Goldfinch in a flock of Lesser Goldfinches, and a Gray Flycatcher calling from the shrubbery. As for vireos, I didn't get the Bell's, but I did get Hutton's Vireo, an expected species in Arizona which I almost thought was a kinglet when I saw it.
Moving on again, we stopped at a pond in Gilbert which had Clark's Grebe and California Gull, then moved onto the southwest, passing flocks of Yellow-headed Blackbirds and Lark Buntings, as well as a Burrowing Owl perched on a bush. When we finally got to a section of Baseline Road and Salome Highway called "the Thrasher spot" on eBird and Google Maps. I'm serious, there a location in Google Maps literally called "Thrasher Spot Parking Area," which is how I found the spot in the first place. This spot in the middle of the desert is one of the easiest places to find most of the thrashers in the ABA Area. With the exceptions of Long-billed and Brown Thrashers, which I saw in Texas and New York respectively, most thrashers prefer desert and chaparral (semidesert) habitat. This spot in the desert supports most the desert species: Bendire's, LeConte's, and Crissal. As we pulled up to the parking area, I spotted a Bendire's Thrasher sulking in the bushes, then a Sage Thrasher, which prefers sagebrush and plains habitats in the summer and winters in deserts. I got out of the car and walked along the sandy areas in search of the other species, which I got brief looks first of Crissal Thrasher, then of LeConte's Thrasher hiding in dense brush, just out of focus range for my camera. Heading back to the car, I flushed a Sagebrush Sparrow in a flock of White-crowns and Verdins. As we left, a Ferruginous Hawk flew over.
The final stop of the day was White Tank Mountain Regional Park, in search of a continuing Gray Vireo. A lot of the birds I looked for today were all in various shades of gray, brown, or tan, which aren't the most exciting to look at, but the fact many of them were lifers makes up for the lack of color. Driving up the road to the trail the vireo was seen on, I pointed out a Rock Wren on the ground and White-throated Swifts flying overhead. Walking up the trail, I found a Canyon Wren and a Green-tailed Towhee. Shortly after, I heard a harsh "charr" call coming from the brush, then saw a grayish bird flying across the trail. As quickly as I wanted to say it was the vireo, I didn't because Loggerhead Shrikes are also in the Sonoran Desert, and. I refound it perched on a small bush, where I saw it flick its tail a couple of times, then I was satisfied with calling it a Gray Vireo before heading back.
As we entered the resort, my mom insisted that we stop to take pictures of the full moon. I had planned to go owling on site anyway, so to hear a Western Screech-Owl right off the bat made my job much easier.
When I planned the southeast Arizona day, I knew I would need help from a birder who is more familiar with the area, which is why I asked Max Leibowitz for help. My dad and I picked him up in Tuscon first before setting out for Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, a grasslands are where I should hopefully get Baird's Sparrow, Sprague's Pipit, and Chestnut-collared and McCown's Longspurs. The first spot we drove around had Lark Buntings, Vesper Sparrows, Lilian's Meadowlarks, Common Ravens, and a Say's Phoebe. The next spot we birded in the grasslands was Curly Horse Ranch Road. First we spotted two bluebirds perched next to each other, one Mountain Bluebird and one Western Bluebird. In the field where Baird's Sparrows had been reported, we trudged around and flushed several sparrows that were good candidates for Baird's, although we didn't call them Bairds without any good looks, which I'm wondering could've been Vesper Sparrows instead, as well as a Savannah Sparrow.
The next spot we tried was the Paton Center for Hummingbirds or Paton's Yard, one of the few reliable spots north of Mexico for Violet-crowned Hummingbird. The original owners, Wally and Marion Paton, began allowing birders to visit their home and view the birds that came to their feeders in Patagonia shortly after moving there. After Wally died in 2001 and Marion in 2009, the birding community was left with an inspiring legacy upon which to build. In 2014, Tuscon Audubon Society acquired the Paton's house and restored it as the Paton center. Shortly after arriving, we saw an Arizona Gray Squirrel and the first of several Broad-billed Hummingbirds. In order to find a Violet-crown, we all split up to cover more ground. We also saw more sparrows (including Chipping), a Bewick's Wren, a Cassin's Vireo, and a Bridled Titmouse, but no Violet-crown. Unfortunately, my camera battery died after this stop, just enough time to get some photos of a mystery hummingbird.
Trying to maximize daylight, we went to four more stops before calling it a day. The first was Patagonia Lake State Park, which many people might recognize from the beginning of The Big Year as where Sandy Komito began his quest with a Nutting's Flycatcher, in search of a Black-capped Gnatcatcher and a Green Kingfisher (I got that in Texas, but Max needed it at the time we went there). There, we saw several Mexican Ducks and Redheads, at least 40 American Coots, singles of Eared and Western Grebes, two Hammond's Flycatchers, and a Pink-sided Junco. Unfortunately, neither of our target species were there. Next, we tried Rancho Santa Cruz, a newly opened spot along the De Anza Trail. Earlier that week, a Rose-throated Becard was reported from this spot. We didn't see the becard, but had more Bridled Titmouse, a Vermilion Flycatcher, a flock of Chihuahuan Ravens, and a raptor that we initially considered Zone-tailed, but left as unidentified without photos. Afterwards, before stopping at a Border Patrol checkpoint, we stopped at another site on the De Anza Trail called Tumacacori for Rufous-winged Sparrow, two of showed up after a few minutes of waiting. Most of our targets were hit or miss, so to succeed on this one after a string of misfortune was reassuring. Lastly, we made it to Madera Canyon, which I hoped was the most promising spot. Just after we arrived, I got several new ones right off the bat at the feeders near Santa Rita Lodge: Rivoli's and Blue-throated Hummingbirds (the latter flew right at my face and hovered just a few feet away), Acorn Woodpeckers, Mexican Jays, an Arizona Woodpecker, several Yellow-eyed Juncos, and a Hepatic Tanager. We ran into Ken Blankenship there, who was guiding a client around. From the lodge, we moved down the canyon to look for Elegant Trogon, Painted Redstart, and Ocotero. Unfortunately, we could not locate them as it was getting dark, but we did hear the Mexican subspecies of Brown Creeper in the canyon, which is a prime candidate for a split from the northern forms. The final new bird of the day was a flock of Phainopeplas on the power lines leading down from the canyon, a species I somehow missed the day before.
After we dropped Max off, I told him that I would definitely come back to southeast Arizona in the summer, when the specialty birds of Arizona are more abundant and easier to find, to fill in the holes from the day list and my ABA life list. My mom texted me asking if there is a bird called a "night hawk," which I asked if one had been seen in Phoenix. She explained that the concierge said that on the lawn they shine lights to attract insects that the nighthawks eat, presumably Lesser. I said it was too late to try for them, but suggested doing so the next evening.
The next day, all three of us traveled north of Scottsdale to look for southern Rocky Mountain species. At the first bathroom stop of the day, I spotted a Band-tailed Pigeon, a Steller's Jay, and a Juniper Titmouse at another stop to grab snacks. We then went to a spot that had Lewis's Woodpeckers and Woodhouse's Scrub-Jays.
The next spot we went to is a trail in Little Elden Springs. There, we saw a flock of Bushtits at the trailhead. Hiking along the trail, I pointed out a whole host of new birds, such as a Mountain Chickadee, Clark's Nutcrackers, Pinyon Jays, a juvenile Williamson's Sapsucker, and most surprising of all, an American Three-toed Woodpecker. Near the car, we came across a mixed flock of Dark-eyed Junco subspecies, of which I was able to identify to Oregon, Cassiar, Pink-sided, and Gray-headed/Red-backed (most likely the latter). Again, these are just subspecies, but sometime in the future, they may be recognized as species again.
We then headed south towards Cave Springs, a spot in Oak Creek Canyon I was hoping to see American Dippers at. On the descent into the canyon, I added Northern Goshawk (finally) and Townsend's Solitaire to the year count. At the bottom of the canyon, I heard Cassin's Finches and a Red-naped Sapsucker. My plan to find a dipper was simple, follow the course of a stream running through the stream, and look for a slate gray bird feeding in the river. Following the course of the stream, I flushed a gray bird from the river. I tried to relocate the bird visually, but to no avail. Fortunately, I heard it singing, which helped me confirm it as an American Dipper.
The final stop we went to was Page Springs Fish Hatchery, where a Common Black-Hawk was wintering, sadly to no avail...
As we were arriving back at the resort, I spotted a bird fly erratically across the headlights. Based on flight pattern and the timing of the observation, I concluded that it was a Lesser Nighthawk. Later, I walked around the resort grounds in the hopes of finding another, but all I could hear was the bouncy-ball songs of Western Screech-Owls and the unmistakable deep hoot of a Great Horned Owl. Great Horns start pairing up and establishing nest territories early in the breeding season to get a head start on incubation, which lasts up to a month, so the owlets fledge when prey is most abundant in mid spring. Hearing this familiar sound was a reassuring sign that spring is on the way, but for me, it also meant that time is running out. Would I get to 500 in Arizona like I had predicted I would?
That night, I was barely able to sleep: I only had 12 hours left in Arizona, was this enough time to meet my goal for the year? Would I even get to 500 at all? The morning before we left for New York, my dad and I tried for a Varied Thrush reported from a campsite in Tonto National Forest, but to no avail, only a Canyon Towhee stirred. On the way back, I noticed a flycatcher on the side of the road, which turned out to be an Ash-throated Flycatcher, putting me at 498 for the year! That afternoon, I left Arizona having seen 158 species, 73 of which were new for the year for my second highest total new birds outside of New York. While Arizona did not get me to 500 for the year as I initially hoped, I had a greater incentive to return in the future and try again for the southeastern specialties I had missed, but more importantly, it put me tantalizingly close to my primary goal for the year: two more to go!
To be continued...
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