The loaned camera from John Harris really was a life saver, but it was hard to put the loss of my own camera out of mind. I could not stop blaming myself for failing to pack the back up. I worried about the repair cost and time but moreso photos and particularly good photos had been such an important reason for this trip and my good camera was a big part of those hopes. It had already become clear that the approach of this tour was not going to make getting good photos easy, and now it was going to get harder.
Now there was another problem. The original plan had been to visit California Gulch that night to search for Buff Collared Nightjar. We had heard horror stories about vehicles getting stuck in flooded roads on the way there, so travelling that challenging road in the dark was out. This was a big disappointment as the Nightjar is found nowhere else and would have been an ABA Life bird. It was also a potential problem for another important bird for the trip, Five Striped Sparrow. I had seen one 40 years ago, but it would be an important life bird for Frank Caruso (and most of the others on the trip) and definitely a new ABA Life Photo for me (now also complicated by the camera issue). Losing both the Nightjar and this sparrow would have been a big loss. Our leader came up with another way to get to California Gulch – at least in the daytime.
Early the next morning we headed for California Gulch via Arivaca and Warsaw Canyon. Along the way we had Botteri’s and Cassin’s Sparrows and then our first and only views of the much sought after Montezuma Quail. A tough photo through the van’s windshield (especially as I was four rows back), but still a welcomed addition to my ABA Photo (and year but not Life) lists. (Note that all pictures going forward are with the much appreciated loaned SX50).
There is simply no way to be sure to find these quail. We were in good habitat many times during our travels and they just did not cooperate (the same would be true later for Scaled Quail). I have several friends who have spent many hours looking for/hoping for this bird in Arizona and were unsuccessful. So these were a good find.
We continued on via Ruby Road and reached the beginning of California Gulch and could go no further as there was a torrent raging down a usually dry wash. In keeping with those aforementioned horror stories, there was a Chevy Suburban stuck in what was now a stream. We heard of one group that spent a whole night trapped before being rescued.
Abandoned Stuck Chevy Suburban
The road in had been terrible – a big jolt every few feet magnified by the van’s poor suspension and springs – but at least we had made it this far. Was it going to be far enough? Would we find the Five Striped Sparrow? There was a bit of confusion at the start and we were told we would wade across the stream to search for the Sparrow. One other person from the group and I did so only to learn that plans were changed and the try for the Five Striped Sparrow would be done downstream first. Wet shoes are not my first choice, but I had had enough foresight to remove socks so not a big deal as we waded back across and went downstream. I think it was Frank and his great birding ears that first heard the call of what turned out to be a Five Striped Sparrow – a much wanted new Life bird for him. We got fairly good looks at it across the stream. Were I on my own, I would have worked closer for a good photo, but that was not in the cards with the group. (And yes, I know I am whining, but it is my blog and I am also being honest. Especially after the long ride in the back of the uncomfortable van and the unnecessary wade across the stream, the initial good feeling of at least finding the bird (not hard in the Gulch) was moderated by wanting a better photo – and yes with MY camera setup. )
Five Striped Sparrow
On our return towards Nogales, we saw some Pronghorns in the Grasslands and added Rufous Crowned and Grasshopper Sparrows to our sparrow list for the day. We also had some Rock Wrens, another Yellow Billed Cuckoo and more Black Tailed Gnatcatchers.
Rufous Crowned Sparrow
Complaining aside, any day that includes both Five Striped Sparrow and Montezuma Quail should be considered a good birding day. But it just did not feel like it. The poor photos of the Sparrow and Quail only reinforced the feeling of loss of my own camera. They also reminded me how the approach of this tour was not what I would have preferred or how I would have (should have?) approached things and gone on my own – and that was surely brought home with the long and hard ride at the back of the van. And truth in blogging, a big challenge in my relationship had developed a few days before I departed home and was almost constantly on my mind. All of this continued to weigh heavily on me. If John had not been so kind in lending me his camera, it really would have been very tough to continue the trip. I may well have chosen not to.
But then a really good thing happened. It was our arrival at the Casa de San Pedro Bed and Breakfast. The Casa de San Pedro is in Hereford, Arizona not far from Sierra Vista (sometimes called “Sorry Vista”) and pretty close to the Mexican Border. It is a perfect home base for exploration of the many bird filled canyons of the Huachuca Mountains. It is a place that I would love to visit – even without the birds. Owners Karl Schmitt and Patrick Dome bought the property in 2002, relocating from the Northwest. Their love for the place and for its guests is evident in every detail and in every word and action. It is also evident in their extraordinary breakfasts – reason enough to stay with them. Do not go if you are on a diet – as the quantity is second only to the quality. We were going to be there three nights and it could not have come at a better time. The only problem would be not having enough time to actually enjoy the place itself as we would be off to those Huachuca Canyons and environs every day.
Casa de San Pedro (the photo does not do it justice)
Breakfast at the Casa de San Pedro (this photo does do the food justice!)
Pool at Casa de San Pedro
Yes I would have enjoyed just being at this beautiful serene place, but there were birds to see. Indeed some were seen right there at the Casa. Great Horned Owls greeted us each morning and beautiful Vermillion Flycatchers were readily found.
Great Horned Owl
After a lovely night at the Casa and a superb breakfast, we left the next morning to go to Fort Huachuca to get security clearance so that we could look for Elegant Trogons in Huachuca Canyon. The processing was not too bad and we readily found the trogons in the Canyon – hearing their almost bark like call first. We found a pair at a nest and then two more. We also had Dusky Capped Flycatchers and more Sulphur Bellied Flycatchers.
Elegant Trogon at Nest
Trogons may well be the most sought after and representative bird of Southeast Arizona – great to find them so readily. Afterwards we moved on to Garden Canyon still on the Fort property. A large Western Diamond Backed Rattlesnake was a highlight along the way.
Western Diamond Backed Rattlesnake
In Garden Canyon our best birds were several Buff Breasted Flycatchers. I had seen them before 40 years ago and frankly had forgotten about them when thinking about this trip. Plain but beautiful. After a too-short respite back at Casa de San Pedro, we visited Mary Jo Ballator’s Ash Canyon B & B with its many hummingbird feeders and the delightful Mary Jo. There were many Anna’s Hummingbirds but the great treat was a male Lucifer’s Hummingbird. This had been high up on my want list for the trip – a new ABA Life Bird. I could not get the perfect photo but was thrilled with the ones I did. Mary Jo was a wonderful and knowledgeable hostess.
On the way to and from Mary Jo’s there seemed to be Lark Sparrows everywhere – but not easy to get good photos of this species that I see regularly in Washington.
Great Horned Owls greeted us again the next morning at the Casa where breakfast included the best pancakes I have ever had. Following breakfast I got a good photo of a Gila Woodpecker (seen frequently during our trip and a new ABA Life photo for me.)
Gila Woodpecker (This photo is earlier in the trip and I forgot to use it in the first part of this post. I may go back and edit later.)
We were now off to Reef Campground near the top of Carr Canyon. A Tufted Flycatcher had been seen there regularly and was a prized bird. On the way up we had our first Scott’s Oriole of the trip. It was frustrating not to be able to get this ABA Life photo from the van and I probably committed a faux pas by opening the side door to at least try for a shot and it flew off. Later a second one was seen elsewhere on the trip – but again I was blocked by the van and never even got a look. It is just the nature of things traveling in a van and why I do not think I will go on this kind of trip again. EVERYONE was cooperative and we rotated seats but there are just too many severe visibility (and photography) limitations.
The search for the Tufted Flycatcher was frustrating. We got to the campground about 5 minutes after one had been seen well by the many birders already there. We remained for at least 60 minutes and relocated it only to have it fly off – before many in the group got any look at all. Seemingly it would go quiet and then go on a feeding frenzy with quick movements from place to place – covering far more territory than I would have expected. The group split up and kept looking. Catherine Bland and I were further afield than the others and we had very good looks in the open in a couple of spots as it kept moving. I grabbed a quick photo (the best I would get) and then went to tell the others. [If I had focused only on a photo for me, I probably would have done better, but that is not the etiquette for the group – and everyone really was good about helping everyone get on birds and I had certainly benefited from others earlier and would again.] Of course it flew off. Eventually after persistence everyone got to see this very rare bird.
Tufted Flycatcher (If only I could magically remove the branch…)\
There were also some Buff Breasted Flycatchers in the area and this time there was no interfering branch and there was excellent light – bingo a very nice photo. The two birds are similar but also very different. Note the two very different bills for example. Also in some views the tuft of the Tufted Flycatcher was very noticeable.
Buff Breasted Flycatcher
Some of us also found a couple of Brown Creepers of the distinctive Mexican albescens subspecies. These may be split off as a separate species someday. We saw others later in the tour.
Brown Creeper (definitely not my best work…)
We bounced our way back down yet another challenging road and then visited the Beatty’s feeders in Miller Canyon. A number of great hummingbirds have been seen here in the past including my much sought after White Eared Hummingbird (last seen here in June). We had a single male Broad Tailed Hummer and I missed a Costa’s but otherwise nothing different.
Broad Tailed Hummingbird
We got back in time for me to do some laundry at the Casa in their top line machines (everything about this place was really superb). Then the following morning after yet another wonderful breakfast, we met Ron Beck and Dorian Anderson for the steep hike up Hunter Canyon to look for Rufous Capped Warblers. This was Ron’s home turf and he was terrific. Some other birders staying at the Casa had tried for and missed the warblers the preceding day. Ron made sure that we didn’t. We heard their very quiet calls and got a look not quite at the top. A few of us continued up with Ron and got even better if fleeting looks and then came back down again for a last look. This was an ABA Life bird for everyone and was one I had not counted on (but hoped for). It is a Mexican specialty that is found primarily in this canyon.
Rufous Capped Warbler
We never got a real look but this was the only place on the tour where we had Woodhouse’s Scrubjay – their calls distinctive upslope and just barely seen as they flew away. I had added this recently split species to my life list on my Colorado trip last year and got a photo then (shown here).
Woodhouse’s Scrubjay (from Colorado trip in 2016)
We headed back to the Casa de San Pedro sadly to check out. It gave us another gift as John Harris spotted our only Bronzed Cowbird of the trip on a feeder. We said our goodbyes and headed off towards the Chricahuas.
Bronzed Cowbird (ABA Life Photo)
Leaving for the Chiricahuas we passed through a wetland that added a number of species to our trip list. In the grasslands we also found an adult Lark Bunting and I was able to get a photo from the back. Not a particularly charismatic bird, but it was important to me as the only ones I had ever seen were in Presho, S.D. in 1970 on my drive out to California – before I had become a birder but it was distinctly remembered.
We also had a pair of Chihuahan Ravens. They were once called White Necked Ravens and as the wind blew some of their feathers, my photo captured some of that white – something I had never seen before.
Our new “home” was the Portal Lodge – a far cry from the Casa de San Pedro. Barely a two star motel, but safe and well located and probably the only place available for us to stay. Food was available at the Cafe next door, so convenience ruled the day. The next morning, before breakfast we visited grasslands in both New Mexico and Arizona and found Curve Billed, Crissal, and Bendire’s Thrashers. The latter two were ABA Life Photos.
Curve Billed Thrasher
We also heard some Scaled Quail – our only ones of the trip – but diligent searching (repeated the next day) failed to produce a visual. Fortunately I had good looks and photos of them from my 2016 Colorado trip.
After breakfast and seeing the only Javelina of the trip, we headed up into the Chiricahuas with our main target being Mexican Chickadees – another Life bird for Frank.
Into the Chiricahuas – A Beautiful Place
There had been some question as to whether we could get to the right habitat because the main road had washed out at Turkey Creek. Just as we arrived at the trouble spot we saw a road grader – which conveniently had just finished regrading the road and we passed through without any trouble. Just above Onion Saddle we found some Mexican Chickadees – not great views or photo ops (at least compared to the usual experience with the very similar Black Capped Chickadees back home) – but very welcomed.
Returning to Portal we visited Maya’s feeders and had our first Blue Throated Hummingbirds of the trip including a female on a nest. This picture is from the next day at the Southwest Research Station which was a bit of a disappointing experience for me. Throughout the trip we were told we would find the Blue Throated Hummingbird at the station’s feeders. I expected a lengthy stay. Instead the group focused on butterflies (nothing against them but not really interested). I had finally gone on ahead and grabbed a quick photo of a hummer on a feeder thinking there would be a chance to improve on it, but instead we were going to move on without any visit to the feeders. Hmmmm? Glad I took the one shot.
Blue Throated Hummingbird
It was time to move on – heading back to Tucson for a final dinner and then a departure the following day. On the way we stopped at Twin Lakes in Wilcox where we had a number of shorebirds including my first Baird’s Sandpipers for the year. A real treat followed with a stop at St. David’s where our leader knew it might be possible to find a Mississippi Kite. Frank was the first to see it on a fly by. I missed that one. We then did a U-turn and we got out of the van just in time to see the Kite disappear. No photo and I debated whether I could even count it. We waited hoping it would fly by again. It did not. I walked down the road a couple hundred yards and found one perched in the open. Everyone got great looks as it flew out and then returned to the perch several times. This time there was a photo – another ABA Life photo for me.
This would be the last new bird for the trip, the year and for my Life Photo List – a wonderful way to end. We had a fine dinner at the Four Points Restaurant at the Sheraton across from the Hampton Inn next to the Tucson Airport.
Despite some disappointments and some mismatches for me in terms of how I most like to bird, it had been a very successful trip in most ways. All told we had seen 180 species. Of these 6 were new ABA Life Birds, 52 were ABA Life Photos and 72 were new ABA birds for the year. The Life Birds were Black Capped Gnatcatcher, Lucifer Hummingbird, Rose Throated Becard, Tufted Flycatcher, Rufous Capped Warbler and Mexican Whippoorwill. They brought me to 690 ABA life birds. I probably cannot reach the magical 700 mark this year. But the Arizona photos did put me over 620 ABA Life Photos getting me well past my goal of 600. I had expected (hoped for?) more new year birds and now stand at 488 ABA birds for the year. 500 should be reachable for the year but with more work than I thought would be necessary after the trip. I may have to take another trip I guess.
When I got home I took my camera in to see what was wrong. I got the bad news a couple of days later. The contacts were corroded and I was told it would cost more to repair it than to get a new one. Ouch!! I have ordered one from Amazon. Maybe I won’t take another trip after all. Sigh…
Some Scenery Shots