Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Birding in Patagonia: Specialties to Rarities

On August 15th, 2013, Richard Wilson decided to bird at Patagonia Lake State Park.  I don't know Richard, but I'm sure he was planning on having an ordinary day of birding at the State Park.  Even an ordinary day is spectacular at the park.  But an odd waterbird caught his eye, that turned out to be a young Blue-footed Booby.  Blue-footed Boobies are primarily sea birds and nest on islands off of western Mexico, but do occasionally stray into the interior southwest.  It is very rare in Arizona, with only eight prior records before the discovery of this bird.  In western Arizona, a few Brown Boobies were also found by my buddy David Vander Pluym.  But this Blue-footed Booby is declared extra special, because it was the first Booby species to ever be found in southeastern Arizona.  It killed me because I was wanting to see the bird very bad, but couldn't afford to drive down to Patagonia on my own for at least a week after the remarkable discovery.

Luckily, my two birding friends Muriel Neddermeyer and Gordon Karre (check out their awesome sites) emailed me and said they'd be interested in going with me.  We planned on seeing a Booby species, either the Brown Booby at Lake Havasu or the more desired Blue-footed Booby at Patagonia Lake State Park.  Still luckily, the Blue-footed Booby continued to stay put up until Friday evening, the night before we would make our attempt on Saturday, August 24th.  We planned to make it a weekend trip, birding all around Patagonia on the first day, followed by some of the popular southeastern Arizona canyons on the following Sunday.  Between rarities such as the Booby, Painted Buntings, Rufous-capped Warblers, and even a Yellow-green Vireo, we had a lot of ground to cover.  By the end of our trip, the three of us combined for one awesome team.

After leaving the Valley early on Saturday, we headed south to Patagonia Lake State Park to start off our day in the long exploration of the Patagonia area.  As in most birding areas, there are other distractions despite the main target bird.  In Patagonia, there are too many to count.  As we started driving on the entrance road to Patagonia Lake State Park through it's grassland habitats, both sides of the road were filled with the songs of Botteri's and Cassin's Sparrows.  The Cassin's Sparrow was a lifer for Gordon, and we all enjoyed watching it skylark while singing.  Unfortunately, it was too hard to capture such flight shots on camera.  Regardless, both species were cooperative and noisy.

Botteri's Sparrow

Cassin's Sparrow

The surrounding scenery on this entrance road is awesome, and the skies were filled with monsoon clouds.

After the sparrow thrills, we then made our way into Patagonia Lake State Park to begin our search for the Blue-footed Booby.  The Booby had been seen every day prior to our arrival, so we were feeling very good about our chances.  Based on reports, the Booby covered most of the lake during the day.  We were hoping we would be at the right place at the right time however to get these awesome views that everyone else in southeastern Arizona was seeming to get.  We did know that the Booby favored the area by the dam at the west side of the Lake earlier in the morning or later in the day.  So Gordon, Muriel, and I made our way over to the west side of the Lake to scan the immediate section of the dam.  We didn't see the Booby floating on the water, and I happened to spy it flying east down the lake.  Of course, it was heading in the opposite direction.  The views were distant, and I was hoping we would get a much better look at it than this.

After waiting for it to hopefully return our way, we realized it wasn't heading back our way.  It was probably fishing and diving in front of dozens of other happy birders while we were on the western edge of the lake.  We decided to head back east to the main section of the lake where the beach was.  The area in and around the beach was a spot where many birders were giving amazing and up close looks at the Booby.  Boobies, in general, aren't scared of people, and are rather clueless birds.  But they are remarkable fisherbirds, and we were hoping to experience it's fishing talents with better views than what we had.  As we arrived at the beach, we ran into fellow birder Dave Powell, and Dave told us that we missed the Booby by 5 minutes.  We were pretty mad, especially when Dave said the boat people would've been able to practically touch the bird.  After running in the direction shortly west where the Booby went, we ran into two ladies who said we just missed it again.  By this time, I was very frustrated until we looked down a bend of the lake to see.....

The Blue-footed Booby going for the dive!

We were much closer to the Booby this time, and were much happier with our views.  Then it started to come closer...

and closer....

and closer!!

The juvenile Blue-footed Booby started to fly and circle around us, and then it started to actively dive for fish in front of us too.  It was a spectacular sight!  Things got even better as we were standing along the shoreline and the Booby dove 15 feet right in front of us.  It happened way too fast for me to be able to capture it live, but man, it was cool to see!  The Blue-footed Booby was of course, a lifer for me, and it is one of my favorites so far this year.  It was also a lifer for Muriel, and a U.S. first for Gordon.  Gordon took a trip to Mexico where he got to see both Blue-footed and Brown Boobies off the coast.  In the ABA area, the Blue-footed Booby is considered to be a very rare Code 4.  The adult has striking blue feet, something this young bird hasn't grown into yet.  

The Booby took awhile to cover our area, and we weren't complaining at all.  It even caught the interest of a younger couple who weren't birders.  They were amazed by it, and watched it for almost the entire time we watched it.  Perhaps they will become birders, we hope!  Who wouldn't want to watch a Blue-footed Booby?!

This bird was a big deal to me!  I took as many photographs as I possibly could have!

The Blue-footed Booby

The three of us had a lot to smile about after the Booby show!

Besides the incredible highlight of the Blue-footed Booby, we were also treated to seeing an American Bittern fly over the reeds behind us in the picture.  A few Black Vultures also flew directly overhead, and joined a few Turkey Vultures, where we had excellent "comparison" views. 

Black Vulture

Before I forget, here's a few scenes of Patagonia Lake.

As we were watching the Booby, we were joined by Kelly Rishor.  Kelly took our picture, and she then joined forces with us for some of our following stops after the lake.  We made our own Fantastic Four, and we continued to explore Patagonia's birding areas in depth.  Up next was the Roadside Rest Area in Patagonia.

The Roadside Rest Area is well known for seeing the Thick-billed Kingbird, and it has had many rarities in the past such as nesting Rose-throated Becards.  Sadly, the Becards are now very rare in Arizona.  But the Thick-billed Kingbird is an attraction of it's own.  As we arrived at the Roadside Rest, we had no trouble locating a Thick-billed Kingbird.  

Thick-billed Kingbird

Birders at the Roadside Rest Area in Patagonia

Up next, Muriel, Gordon, Kelly, and I ventured out to the San Rafael Grasslands.  Before we reached the Grasslands, we had to journey through the pleasant Harshaw Canyon, another awesome birding location.  Oak covered grassy hillsides dominate the area of Harshaw Canyon, which includes species such as Eastern Bluebird and Montezuma Quail.  The Montezuma Quail is always hard to find, but the Eastern Bluebird isn't nearly as hard.  Muriel spied what turned out to be a family of Eastern Bluebirds, which was an awesome highlight!

Eastern Bluebirds

This Rufous-crowned Sparrow was also pretty dang awesome!

Harshaw Canyon

After Harshaw, we made our way out into the San Rafael Grasslands, one of the top beautiful places to be found in Arizona.

Once driving through the grasslands, we then came up upon a plethora of Grasshopper Sparrows perched on fence posts alongside the road.  It was incredible, and some of the adult Grasshoppers were feeding their young, and stuffing their mandibles full of grub!  These sparrows were also very vocal, and they sound like a loud grasshopper.  Probably one of the better-named sparrows.  Notice the bugs and spider in one of the pictures!

Grasshopper Sparrows

As we still cruised through the Grasslands, the songs and calls of the Eastern Meadowlark were also numerous.  They would occasionally perch up on the fence posts as the Grasshopper Sparrows did.  But for those who know Meadowlarks well, certainly know that they don't stay up long when perched and are very shy.  Every time we would approach an Eastern Meadowlark, it would fly away before we got in range of good views.  But then there came a diamond in the rough, an Eastern Meadowlark who wasn't so shy.  I thought he was kidding us.

Eastern Meadowlark

I got lucky and was able to get these few photographs of the bird, and it seemed like this Eastern Meadowlark was really going nowhere.  Things turned for the worse when a border patrol officer pulled up to us (did I mention the Grasslands are a few miles north of Mexico?) and said, "Are you guys doing ok?".  We told him we were birding, but there was no way the Meadowlark was going to pose for two vehicles.  And off it went.  This Horned Lark tried to be perk us up after the Eastern Meadowlark departure.  Notice the spider dangling near the Lark.  The birds of the Grassland really had a good food source, obviously.

Horned Lark and San Rafael Grassland Spider

Here is Kelly, Muriel, and Gordon enjoying the Grasslands

I enjoyed the Grasslands too!  (Thanks Muriel for the pic)

Heading back through Harshaw Canyon towards Patagonia, we had more good birds, that weren't to be photographed.  One was a visual of a young Gray Hawk and the other was a heard only Yellow-billed Cuckoo in someone's private property.  Going into private property on this road would probably be equivalent to entering a lion's den, so we didn't even think about it.  Plus we heard gunshots.  Once we were back on the road, Muriel and Gordon spied a snake in the road, and Muriel wasn't able to stop.  We turned around, thinking we probably ran over it.  The snake was a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, and it wasn't moving.  I figured it was mortally injured or even most likely, dead.  I poured water on it and it stuck it's tongue out, so it was probably mortally wounded.

Gordon then attempted to touch the snake with his camera tripod.  The snake quickly got in striking position, put never struck or rattled.  When Gordon tried to move it off the road, the snake slithered off the road faster than I've ever seen a snake move before.  There was no way it was injured, despite the fact that seemingly seemed to be the case at first.  Weird...

Driving out of the Harshaw, we also enjoyed several families of Barn Swallows who liked to perch on the wires.

Barn Swallows

Our next stop was to be the Paton's Birder Haven, which is one of the top hummingbird feeding stations in the United States.  Thousands of birders visit this location annually.  The awesome Larry Morgan is the host of this site, and he has done a great job here.  He commonly visits with the birders and also spies great birds.  As we arrived at Paton's, we immediately saw Larry, and he immediately told us he just had a great bird.  Before I get to that great bird, I'll give a quick visual overview of the Paton's of what the birder will see within seconds of entering this awesome yard.

The Paton's-A yard full of feeders to attract a variety of songbirds

Abundant hummingbirds (including the fact this place is top notch for Violet-crowned Hummingbird)

Here is a female Broad-billed Hummingbird enjoying the feeders

When we walked up, Larry said, "Hey guys, there was just a male Painted Bunting who just came into the yard in the grass!".  We were stoked because that was one of our target birds.  They were also being seen at the nearby Kino Springs.  This was a potential lifer for Gordon and me, and Muriel had already seen some of them on her recent trip to Texas.  The Painted Bunting is rare but regular to southeastern Arizona in late summer/early fall.  Larry said the bird was likely in a wash near the house.  When we walked over to the wash, sure enough, I quickly spied the male Painted Bunting, who came down to drink some of the water that was in the wash.  Many different species were coming down to drink the water, which also included Lazuli Buntings.  I got off a few distant but diagnostic photographs of the male Painted Bunting.

Painted Bunting (Do you notice something in the picture?) 

This male Painted Bunting isn't really showing off his green back to well, but is still a striking bird.  As mentioned above, do you notice the bird beside the male Painted Bunting to the right in the above picture.  Well, it appears to be his counterpart, a female Painted Bunting!  Live at the Paton's, I didn't notice this bird because we were so focused on the male.  But it appears to be a female, and it is drastically different in it's coloration from the male, but does have a neat lime-green coloration to it.  Here's a few more shots.

And here is Larry Morgan, awesome as always!

After the fun at Paton's, we dropped Kelly off and headed to Kino Springs to look for more Painted Buntings.  There's always something in the day that turns out to be a mistake, and the mistake was shown as we went to this location to close out the day instead of another visit to Patagonia Lake (an encore of the Booby would've been nice!).  Kino Springs is a neat place, but not as neat as the others we visited.  We did find another male Painted Bunting quickly, but it skulked in the cover and made two brief appearances.  Gordon did spy a male Indigo Bunting, to give us a four bunting day.  We did have Varied Buntings earlier in the day at the lake.  Lazuli Buntings were everywhere at Kino Springs.  We also enjoyed families of Tropical Kingbirds, Blue Grosbeaks, and two Vermilion Flycatchers.

Tropical Kingbirds

Female Lazuli Bunting

Vermilion Flycatcher

Kino Springs

After Kino Springs, Muriel, Gordon, and I wrapped up our first of two birding days and headed for McDonald's before crashing.  The area of Patagonia is a marvelous place to bird, as shown in this entry for my blog posts.  This area is one of my favorites in all of Arizona, especially because there a so many birding locations that are found in a relatively small area.  Patagonia holds good birding in all seasons, this was just an example of one day here.  I hope in my future, there will be more Patagonia birding days!


  1. WOW!!! Is all I can say. You really did a super job on this post and lots of great photos. If this doesn't get some new people into birding, I don't know what will. I was a great day for all of us and it went by all too fast.

    1. Thank you Gordon! It was a fantastic trip that I will never forget! I hope that couple at Patagonia Lake will take up birding, they really seemed interested. This was one of the trips that seemed to go by a lot faster than other trips! Wish we could do it again this weekend!