Sunday, June 23, 2013

Birding in the remote southeast section of the southwest tip of Maricopa County: Bender Springs and the Vekol

Anytime I can add a new Maricopa County bird to my overall Maricopa County list is a big deal for me.  How about two new Maricopa County birds in a single day?  That is a huge deal!  How about a completely new area to see for the first time with that sequence?  A Maricopa birding freak dreams about days like that!  Days like that are very rare for me, but I had one on June 22nd, 2013.

Ever since I've gotten into Maricopa County birding (exploring areas and listing as many species as humanly possible in the region), I've always wanted to explore the desert mountains and valleys southeast of Gila Bend.  This includes the Sand Tank Mountains and the Vekol Valley.  Two birds that have mainly a southeastern Arizona distribution have been found in these areas.  One is the Varied Bunting and the other is the Rufous-winged Sparrow.  Varied Buntings have been found annually in recent years by John Arnett in Bender Springs Canyon in the Sand Tank Mountains.  This has included several breeding pairs within a relatively short distance of each other.  The Rufous-winged Sparrows were found in the Vekol Valley singing for the first time in 1995, and were thought to be probably breeding the area, which is rarely explored.  John thought of an excellent idea to lead a Sonoran Audubon Society field trip to this remote and rarely touched area by birders.  Because John is a wildlife biologist and works in this area, he's the primary source for a birding trip out here.  The plan was to focus on searching for these two species, as well as looking for saguaro cactus-nesting Purple Martins, which John has also found out here.  This area is also extremely dangerous, and is inhabited by drug smugglers.  Access is granted only through a permit after watching safety videos.

On June 22nd, 2013, John Arnett led a Sonoran Audubon Society field trip out to these areas.  The group consisted of eight people:  John Arnett, John Saba, Chrissy and Sydney Smith, George Wall, Andree Tarby, Carol Beardmore, and myself (Tommy D).  After we all spent the afternoon and night in Gila Bend on the previous day, we left Gila Bend at 4 A.M. to get to our first destination, Bender Springs, at about 6:30 A.M.  The route of close to 20 miles from the east I-8 exit at Vekol Road and taking rugged backroads to Bender Springs was a very rough drive.  We carpooled in two high clearance vehicles.  John Arnett drove a truck and George Wall drove a Saturn.  In all of my life, this was the roughest road I've been on while in a vehicle. John's truck did the route easily, but George's Saturn had a harder time.  After a few very rough and challenging patches in the road, we all made it safely to Bender Springs Canyon without any injuries, busted tires, or smuggler encounters.

Now Bender Springs Canyon is a beautiful place on the Barry M. Goldwater Range with many surrounding and scenic canyons and mountains. Bender Springs also features a neat archaeological site as well as the official Bender Springs, which is found by looking for a stand of cattails.

Here are a few scenes of the impressive area of Bender Springs Canyon:

This is where John has had breeding Varied Buntings, and I was anxious as ever to get that species for Maricopa County!   It didn't take long for luck to hit us.  John quickly heard a male Varied Bunting singing shortly after our arrival to the canyon.  We walked over to where the sound was coming from, and we eventually found our first pair of Varied Buntings, a male and female chasing each other around on the adjacent slope to our side of the canyon.  John had his spotting scope, and then was able to get the scope on the male bunting, who was perched on a saguaro cactus.  I wish I could've photographed that scene, but it was distant.  Perhaps a cut and crop of two objects on a picture maker would work to replicate the picture?  Walking further down the canyon resulted in more Varied Buntings, including a male that was much closer and more cooperative.  He even landed on a cliff that was overshadowing us.  He didn't realize that he's a bunting and not a wren or a rosy finch.  Here are a few shots I did manage, which aren't bad!

Varied Bunting-a Maricopa County lifer for Tommy D!

The Bender Springs hike included a walk up a mountainside that overlooked the canyon and provided amazing overlooks of the surrounding area (see above).  Here is a look of trail from below.

There were many other birds also present!  Some of the other highlights besides the buntings included a pair of Golden Eagles, a few Prairie Falcons, several Scott's Orioles, and Gambel's Quail.

Golden Eagle-distant

Prairie Falcon-distant

Gambel's Quail-up close and trailside!

Here is Sydney Smith at Bender Springs itself!

Some of the hike was tiring, and some of it was easy.  George Wall and Andree Tarby sat and wildlife watched while the other six of us bushwhacked and rock climbed down to Bender Springs.  This is the time we also had excellent looks of the male Varied Bunting.  George also took a few pictures of us down in the canyon from high above!

George's eyeview:

We finished up in Bender Springs after three plus hours.  The canyon was enjoyable to bird and a wonderful location.  I hope to visit it again!  

After the hike, we decided to take a route through impressive stands of Saguaro Cacti before heading to the Vekol Valley to search for Rufous-winged Sparrows.  We were looking for Purple Martins, who nest in cactus cavities, but we struck out on them.  But we didn't strike out on Harris's Hawks!

Harris's Hawk-distant

When we arrived in the area of the Vekol Valley it was steaming hot and the group was getting tired.  It was time to look for the sparrows.  Honestly, I wasn't feeling like we would have success with the Rufous-winged.  It seemed so long ago that they had been reported, I just wasn't thinking, or expecting at all, that we  would luck out with this species.  We first checked an abandoned and freaky barn where John had nesting Barn Owl in the past.  Walking into the barn, we found that it was abandoned.  We than continued south were mesquite woodlands were to be found.  The group got out and started to bird.  Half of the group got tired and sick of the heat, and went back to the vehicle.  John Arnett, Sydney, Chrissy, Carol, and I continued exploring the mesquite.  A "trail-like" berm went along and above the bosque.  The habitat looked good to me for Rufous-winged Sparrow, but we weren't hearing any despite playback.  In ways the mesquite bosque reminded me of the bosques at Catalina State Park near Tucson, which had nice flocks of the sparrows.  The bosque was thick and we didn't want to bushwhack much in the heat, so we stayed on the outskirts.  We found a mixed flock of birds at the end of the small route we decided to walk, which included a pair of Pyrrhuloxias and Black-tailed Gnatcatchers.  

The side berm along the Mesquite Bosque:

We then started to head back to the vehicles to head home.  John was a few minutes behind Chrissy, Sydney, Carol, and I.  I heard a Black-throated Sparrow singing in the bosque while we walked.  We got back to the vehicles and were getting ready to leave when John ran out of the bosque screaming "SPARROW!".  John had found our wanted but "unexpected" target, the RUFOUS-WINGED SPARROW, right at the last second!!  The bird was singing fortunately when John was walking by, a few minutes behind us.  The group rushed over to the spot, which was a very short distance away from the cars and not as far as some of us walked along the mesquites.  Right when John took us to the spot, the sparrow was heard singing, and it eventually popped out into the open.  We briefly used playback, in which the sparrow was very cooperative and came right to our calls.  While this male was singing to us, another male Rufous-winged Sparrow was heard singing in the background.  John stated how interesting it would be to return to this spot when the monsoons kick up and search for more of the sparrows in the Vekol Valley.  For me, this was the bird of the day, probably because in all honesty, I wasn't expecting to see this bird.  But it shows that these sparrows, just like the Varied Buntings, are probably here every year.  The sighting was also cool because John literally found the sparrows at the last second.  There are clutch finds in the birding too, just as there are clutch last second three pointers in basketball.  A great way to end the trip!

Rufous-winged Sparrow in Vekol Valley-another Maricopa lifer for Tommy D!

Another funny thing is that the line of mesquites along Vekol Road where we found the sparrows is only a mile or so away from Pinal County to the east.  Talk about close!  It was a great trip to be on, thanks to John Arnett for leading a fun trip, to John Arnett and George Wall for driving their vehicles, to all the participants for spying the birds and for fun company, to John Saba for an extra person to cut the cost down for George and I in our Gila Bend room, and to George Wall for giving me a ride to and fro to Gila Bend and back.  My Maricopa County list now numbers 354 species, with 4 added this year in 2013 (Violet-crowned Hummingbird, Least Grebe, Varied Bunting, Rufous-winged Sparrow).  What bird will be next?

And also, George and I found these Black Terns on our way down to Gila Bend at the Lower River Road Ponds on the 21st of June.  Tommy D..out.

Black Terns


  1. What a great expedition and some wonderful finds for your Maricopa county list! You got some great shots of that RWSP!

  2. Wow...what a great trip!
    Black Terns seem like a pretty solid find for Maricopa, but man Rufous-winged Sparrow!!

    Congratulations Tommy. Great photos and narrative too. I'm bummed to miss it. Cheers!

  3. Good work. Hard for me to imagine the heat.
    Alan Bragg, Bedford MA