Tuesday, February 19, 2013

An epic trip to bird Southeastern Arizona's San Rafael Grasslands

Hi everyone,

Dominic Sherony, Jay Miller, Jim Kopitzke, and I spent a good amount of time starting yesterday afternoon and most of today (2/19/13) birding in several awesome places in pursuit of several awesome birds in southeastern Arizona and Tucson.  Our main birding destination was the San Rafael Grasslands where we spent a good amount of our time.  It was a great trip for the four of us, as we were after life birds, state birds, and birds to photograph.

For Dominic and I, the trip started off on a good note on the afternoon of 2/18/13.  Before we picked up Jim and Jay, we headed over to the Pebble Beach Recreation Site at the Salt River where we were both treated to excellent views of the RED-BREASTED SAPSUCKER.  Even though I've seen this bird several times prior to this visit, it was still just as exciting to observe.  It was a real treat for Dominic, as he hasn't seen much of this species and he also got to get his first ever photographs of this species, which turned out very good.

The four of us then headed down for epic Southeastern Arizona.  The Southeastern Arizona birding experience got even better as we stayed in an amazing cabin between Patagonia and Sonoita.  Under the clear skies the star showing was incredible, where we spent some time owling.  We didn't see any owls, but we heard both GREAT HORNED and WESTERN SCREECH-OWLS.  A Western Screech did lead us around for a good amount of time before we couldn't follow it anymore.  A HUGE thanks to Carol Hippenmeyer for her hospitality and generosity, it really made our trip extra special and enjoyable!  Carol you are beyond awesome!

My three buddies enjoying the cabin:

When this morning (2/19/13) hit, we headed out for the San Rafael Grasslands rather early.  We somehow got a later start than we wanted, and arrived at the grasslands at 6:50 A.M.  Our reason for wanting to get here early was for Short-eared Owl.  We feared we had got there a little late as it was pretty light outside.  But just minutes into pulling onto Forest Road 58 of the Grasslands, I spied a SHORT-EARED OWL sitting right on top of a fenceline roadside as we were approaching.  Our looks of the bird were somewhat distant but we could still make out the bird perfectly.  It quickly resumed it's hunting and flew through the grasslands back and fourth on the north side of the road.  We had decent views of it while it hunted over the grasslands.  Jim watched the bird drop down and catch something, and we were never able to see it again.  This bird was great for the four of us:  a lifer for me, and a state bird for Jim, Jay, and Dominic.  It was also Jim's 400th Arizona bird-congrats Jim!

Picture:  This is a poor but diagnostic picture of the Short-eared Owl.  A wonderful memory!

We than headed over to the Vaca Corral, and Dominic spied one of the continuing ROUGH-LEGGED HAWKS perched in at a distance but in decent scope range.  The hawk entertained us for a few minutes before flying off.  About an hour later in the morning when we were on the north/south road heading in the direction of Mexico (forgot the rd's name?), the Rough-legged Hawk somehow "re found" us!  It flew over the vehicle and then perched on a fence roadside at tame close distances.  This was my first ever Rough-legged Hawk, and it gave me looks that I couldn't have ever asked better for a lifer.  It was also a state bird for Jim (#401!!!) and Jay, and it was Dominic's 3rd Arizona RLHA.

This is the start of a selection of photo captures I was able to obtain when we observed the Rough-legged Hawk.  These first few shots came when the Rough-legged Hawk found us.  Jim spied the bird flying over one of the hills and it flew over us at close and wonderful distances.

The Rough-legged Hawk then landed on a fence at a rather close distance away.  These shots show the bird with the beauty of the surrounding grasslands..

As we drove a little closer to the hawk, it took flight again.  But ironically, it landed at a very close distance along the side of the road along a fence line.  We managed to get extremely close to this bird, and it was super cooperative and almost tame-acting.  In the Rough-legged Hawks that Dominic has observed, they are usually a very shy raptor that don't allow close approach.  This one seemed to know it was my lifebird, and it gave me everything possible that I could've wished for in seeing my first Rough-legged Hawk.  There were tall weeds in the way in some of our views, which may have contributed to the hawk perching super close in obstructing it's view of us.

After seeing this hawk for about ten minutes at this crazy close distance that had to have been less than 50 feet away, it flew off to another perch that was still very close to the road.  Here is another shot with the hawk and the epic Grasslands in the background...
For our final looks, we were able to enjoy more views for a few more minutes.  The hawk still pleased everyone and ceased to fly off far.  Once again, a great way for me to get a lifer!

Prior to this day, the Rough-legged Hawk has been a species that I have been dying to see.  Can you blame me?  After seeing a big hawk out in Buckeye hovering like a kestrel with all the right jizz before I was about to get an identification on it, I was almost 99 percent and change sure that it was a Rough-legged Hawk.  It was always one I wanted badly.  Here is a brief factual overview on the Rough-legged Hawk, who's scientific name is Buteo Lagopus:  It gets it's name "Rough-legged" Hawk referring to it's feathered legs, which are feathered all the way down to it's talons.  They breed in the far north, which includes Alaska and far northern Canada.  The species preferred habitat is open tundra, plains, and marshes.  Rough-legged Hawks typically winter in southern Canada and the northern United States in high numbers.  They are annual further south in the United States but in much lower numbers.  Some years harbor many more hawks than others.  In Arizona, the Rough legged Hawk is rare but annual throughout the state in winter, in fields and grasslands.  They are more regular in the northern half of the state than the southern half.  The Rough-legged Hawk is also known for it's hovering behavior in one place (similar to a kestrel), which is one of it's key behavioral traits.  Rough-legged Hawks are a very variable hawk.  There are both light and dark morphs and  male and females look very different.  This individual is an adult female.  For this bird to be down in the San Rafael Grasslands, it traveled a VERY far distance from it's breeding grounds and has a very far distance to head back.  When these photos were taken of this special bird, we were only a few miles north of Mexico.  

Other raptors were also abundant through the San Rafael Valley.  This included a WHITE-TAILED KITE, abundant NORTHERN HARRIERS, several RED-TAILED HAWKS, plenty of AMERICAN KESTRELS, a MERLIN, and a PRAIRIE FALCON.  Another big target we had at the Grasslands was Baird's Sparrow, in which we struck out on.  Sparrow activity was surprisingly down today at San Rafael, with not much else other than VESPER and SAVANNAH SPARROWS.  Despite a big effort and patient attempt at searching for the Baird's along dense grass among fencelines, we came up empty.  CHESTNUT-COLLARED LONGSPURS were abundant near the Vaca Corral, constantly flying back-and-fourth.  It's almost like they are wasting their own time by flying around the way they fly around.  A few times we caught good glimpses of them, which included looks at several stunning males who have come into breeding plumage.  There were probably anywhere between 200-300 CC LO'S in this area.  The San Rafael Grasslands is a beautiful and stunning place.  In some ways I'm almost glad I missed Baird's Sparrow.  It gives me an excuse to go back.

Before I forget, these guys were also abundant.  The Horned Lark!

Here are also a few pictures from the San Rafael Grasslands:

After the Grasslands, high winds that had picked up made the Paton's Yard tough to get on anything, so we headed up to Tucson.

Our final stop of the day came at the Roger Road WTF at 1:10 P.M., where we were after our last target of the trip, the YELLOW-THROATED WARBLER.  It was windy here too, with strong gusts blowing through at times.  But the bird activity was high despite the wind, which calmed down towards the end.  We all walked around in search of the warbler, and Dominic found the bird well over an hour later.  We were all able to get on it and it was a great way to end the day.  The Yellow-throated Warbler was on the east side of the east pond and then worked it's way to the north side of the pond.  It flew up into a palm tree and never came back out.  Dominic spied it foraging at mid-level at a close distance.  The warbler was a treat for all of us, being a state bird for the four of us as well as a lifer for both Jay and me.

Poor but diagnostic photos of the Yellow-throated Warbler:

We all had three great highlights apiece on the trip, and it was a memorable one to Southeastern Arizona.  As always!

Good Birding,

Tommy DeBardeleben (Glendale, Arizona)


  1. Yeah Man!!

    With buds and beers (presumably) that's the way to do it! Bummer about those Sparrows, but what a raptortastic day! And Yellow-throated Warbler is some catch too! I'm sorta surprised, and sorta not, that you managed to leave the bounds of Maricopa, even for an Unshaven-legged Hawk : )

    These Grasslands are one of a couple Arizona birding musts I still have to hit--preferably before the winter months are through. Gotta get some Baird's Sparrows (and Botteri's, plus photos of Grasshopper and the Longspurs...much work to do). This weekend it'll have to be the Thrasher spot and Buckeye, but maybe next weekend I can get the time (staying overnight really is the way to do it I think, can't imagine leaving here at 2:30am and then being fresh/sharp enough for a day of birding).

    I remember you mentioning you were after the Roughie when I bumped into you out at Tres Rios a ways back. Glad you got that tricky lifer. Great read, great post. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Laurence I heard the Baird's Sparrows are actually gone for the most part by now. They leave very early to head back to their breeding grounds.

    The Hawk and Owl are worth the trip there though, and most of those other sparrows and Longspurs should be there!

  3. Really? I hadn't heard that but I appreciate the forewarning. That's pretty disappointing, but I suppose It's likely I wouldn't have made it out there before later March and the spring onset anyway. It'll be top of the list then next December or so.

    There's also a pull to go to Mittry Lake or Havasu out west to look for Black Rails--something I have no experience with whatsoever. At least I can make that chase now and not have the Sparrows pulling me in the other direction. But, as you say, with those sweet Raptors and some tidy Longspurs down south...gahh we have an embarrassment of feathery riches.

    Have you ever tried for the Black Rails? I should really do some research before driving the 200 miles out there.