Saturday, July 12, 2014

Birding the Rickety Southeastern Arizona

Today, I woke up early again before 3:00 A.M.  It was to be an epic day of birding, and my friends Gordon Karre, Mark Ochs, Chris Rohrer, and I, headed south to Madera Canyon and the Tucson area in southeastern Arizona in Pima and Santa Cruz Counties.  By the end of the day, it was an awesome day to be birding.  But southeastern Arizona is very rickety and unstable.  Many things can happen there in one day or even one hour of birding.  In a time span, you can hit the birding jackpot, or you can miss the jackpot just as easily.  Gordon, Chris, Mark, and I had our fair share of rickety today.  The day started by Gordon and I carpooling from Phoenix, meeting and picking up Mark south of Casa Grande, and then meeting and picking up Chris in Tucson.  Chris lives in Tucson, and is very lucky to be so close to so many cool birding spots in southeastern Arizona.  The four of us joined forces and combined for an awesome birding team.

Madera Canyon was first.  We were targeting Plain-capped Starthroats, Allen's Hummingbirds, and a spectacular nesting hole of a Whiskered Screech-Owl pair.  Fellow birder Jeremy Medina photographed two fledgling owls outside of the nesting hole, and we were hoping to get that.  As we pulled into the scenic mountain vistas of the Santa Rita Mountains as we neared Madera Canyon, the songs of Rufous-winged and Botteri's Sparrows filled the air.  And the Botteri's Sparrows were quite showy and cooperative for roadside views.

We made our way quickly to the Madera Canyon birding bests, such as the Madera Kubo Bed and Breakfast as well as the Santa Rita Lodge and it's feeders.  Madera Kubo was first, and this is where we were hoping to see the fledgling Whiskered Screech-Owls that were fantastically photographed by Jeremy Medina yesterday.  During the course of our day here at Madera Canyon, we checked on the owl hole four to five different times, without success.  It was quite the bummer.  I was hoping to get them, because I am always on a quest to photograph different owl species as well as their different plumages.  A good consolation did present itself though!  We looked up to see this Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher eating it's morning breakfast.

The feeders at the Santa Rita Lodge provided a long sit and a relaxing bird show.  We came here to look for the rare Plain-capped Starthroat, a mexican hummingbird I have only seen once in my life before today.  At the feeders here at the Lodge and at the previously visited Madera Kubo, we were also hoping to find a previously reported Allen's Hummingbird.  The Allen's Hummingbird is a wanted state bird for me, which would also give me 14 species of hummingbirds for Arizona.  Waiting for these birds turned out to really be a wait, but there were quite a few birds around visually and audibly that made the morning very interesting.  One of them was the brown-backed and fun to see Arizona Woodpecker.

After photographing Hepatic Tanagers recently on natural perches, I didn't think a feeder shot would hurt.


A few male Black-headed Grosbeaks were fun to see, I haven't seen one in awhile.

The Lodge is also home to Wild Turkey, who have become unafraid of people.  They come down to the Lodge to feed from the forest above and north of the Lodge.  Ben Franklin, thankfully we didn't listen to your advice about this bird.  Long live the Bald Eagle.

Between the hummingbird feeders at Madera Kubo and Santa Rita Lodge, we didn't find any identifiable Allen's Hummingbirds.  We did see a few candidates though, but there wasn't anything that was definite.  Luckily, the Plain-capped Starthroat didn't ditch us.  In over three hours of watching the feeders at the Santa Rita Lodge where there have been two Starthroats, one of them luckily came in for us several times.  The Plain-capped Starthroat is a big hummer.  It is rather plain, but rather attractive.  The smaller hummingbirds stand back in awe of their much bigger cousin.

The size of the Starthroat was drastic.  As I always have basketball on my brain too, I compared the Starthroat to the size of the smaller birds with the comparison of the tall 7'6" Yao Ming to the standard NBA player.  And then Mark chimed in, and made things hilarious.  Mark called the Plain-capped Starthroat a Long-billed Dowitcher.  It really makes sense in a lot of ways!

It was awesome to see this bird for only the second time in my life!

In between birding Madera Canyon, we also went up Florida Canyon, primarily in pursuit of the awesome Rufous-capped Warblers.  We didn't have any of the warblers, but climbing up in the canyon resulted in a nice surprise, an Indigo Bunting.

The Indigo Bunting was singing loud, but it was also surrounded in song by the more common Varied Bunting.  As we made our way out of the canyon, we got lucky and stumbled upon an active and moving family of Black-capped Gnatcatchers.  This Mexican species is rare in numbers in Arizona, but does nest annually in local canyons in southeastern Arizona.  I haven't seen much of this bird, so today was pretty cool.  I also got to photograph it for the first time too.  The long bill and white undertail coverts, as well as voice (which we heard), are good identification indicators.  

Before we knew it, the day had flown by and we were already at Madera Canyon and vicinity for over eight hours.  We then decided to head into Tucson in pursuit of the rare-in-Arizona Tricolored Heron.  The bird was near the Zoo by Reid Park by the Hardesty Building, and was just west of the pond where a Black Scoter was found last year.  An interesting report came into the Listserv about a possible Yellow-green or Red-eyed Vireo at the same place.  As we arrived on spot, we also ran into Laurens Halsey and Andrew Core, two of Arizona's top birders.  Laurens is doing an Arizona Big Year for 2014, and the Tricolored Heron was important.  It didn't take us long to relocate the bird, which Laurens spied before the rest of us did.  I think it was a bird who could have easily walked by.

It was cool to see the heron, my 3rd for Arizona.  Mark, Gordon, and I started up a flock of birders called the Phoenician Kingbirds.  Chris became a Phoenician Kingbird today too.  As usual, the Phoenician Kingbirds are a treat to see in the field.  And quite the rarities.

We invited Laurens and Andrew to join the Kingbird clock and wear an epic crown after we celebrated the heron, but they still had a Yellow-green Vireo to find......  And so did we!  Andrew did say if the vireo is found they'd be happy to wear a kingbird crown.  As the six of us searched.  While Laurens had a huge addition to his Big Year List in the heron and he wanted another, and the relentless searching paid off.  Mark, Andrew, and Laurens got on the vireo, and it was elusive.  The key field marks were seen, and it was a Yellow-green Vireo, a very rare bird in Arizona!  And about Chris, Gordon, and me?  We stood there with them and were looking, but weren't able to get on the vireo.  It was pretty harsh, especially since it's a lifer for me and rare North American bird and I've missed it narrowly, twice now.  It was good for it to be confirmed and was a great year bird for Laurens.  And because of what Andrew agreed to, he and Laurens became Kingbirds, and each wore an epic crown.  It's great to see that the Phoenician Kingbird population is increasing.

Speaking of kingbirds, we also had a Tropical Kingbird in the park.

It was a great day to be out birding, and this stop concluded our day.  Thanks Gordon, Mark, and Chris for a very fun day of southeastern Arizona birding.


  1. Great time, a great post and you got some great photos as well!

    1. Thanks Gordon, and thanks again for a great day of birding. That was a great time, I can't wait to see your post and photos from the trip. The dumb Vireo too. Maybe we'll find our own, let's hope!

  2. Awesome day out with the end of it turning out rather exciting. Great pics and with time that Vireo will reveal itself to all of us:) hopefully this last monsoon will give us something fun tomorrow and for this week :-) we had a nice rain event today here in Tucson.

    1. Thanks Chris! It was an awesome day out there, cool to meet you too! I think too that we will all get lucky and get to see that bird. I think it's probably one of those birds who knows its rare and it wants to make life hard on birders.

      The rain rocks!

  3. Hi Tommy - I saw you at Santa Rita Lodge on Saturday. Your group left shortly after I arrived. I coincidentally stumbled on your blog. Don't ask. Thanks for your encouragement regarding the Starthroat. It showed up, as well as White-eared, within 30 minutes. I was just passing through on vacation with my family. I'm back home in San Antonio watching my favorite yard bird, Painted Bunting, but hope to return to AZ to find a couple of the birds you saw, like Hepatic Tanager and Black-capped Gnatcatcher, as well a few other AZ specialties. I'm going to try for Yellow-green vireo in Corpus Christi this week. A pair is nesting there. Enjoyed your blog.

    1. Hello Beth, thanks for stopping by! I recognize you from your picture, I'm glad you found my blog and I'm glad you enjoyed it-thank you. I could've stayed at those feeders all day I enjoyed it so much, but we had a couple of other birds we wanted to chase. That is great you got to see those two rare hummingbirds! The Starthroat was more slow that day in frequency compared to other days but was bound to come back, and the White-eared has been very unpredictable. To get them both within 30 minutes-score!

      Painted Bunting for a yard bird-that is tops! I hope you find the Yellow-green Vireos in Corpus Christi, that's a good bird and I wish I was able to see the Tucson one. Arizona has so many birds to chase in one trip, as does Texas. I'd say we live in the best birding states! I hope you can return to Arizona and see more of the birds you want to see. I live in the Phoenix area, we have Hepatic Tanagers nearby too :)