August in Arizona – Part I: The Up before the Down

Similar to my trip to South Florida earlier this year, Southeast Arizona was a repeat of visits long ago – forty years ago in fact.  The two earlier visits, one in December 1976 and one in June 1977 had been early in my birding life (and life in general I guess) and were full of great birds and excitement as visits to one of the great North American birding Meccas should be.  With friends and with some locals but without guides, I had been fortunate to find most of the Arizona specialties.  In those days, however, photography was not even a dream and I had no pictures of any of the great birds.  This trip was intended to hopefully add some new ABA Life birds, lots of new ABA photos and even more new ABA birds for 2017.

Although the vast majority of my birding has been on my own or with friends, I have been fortunate to have been on several tours with well known birding tour companies, and this was the case on this trip joining friend Frank Caruso as I had done in South Florida and participating in the “Second Spring” tour offered by WINGS Birding Tours.  The timing seemed right – August 1 through August 10 – as did the itinerary visiting such iconic places as Mount Lemmon, Madera Canyon, the Huachucas and the Chiricahuas.  The bird lists from previous trips were impressive and suggested that I would find many birds needed to add to all of those aforementioned lists.  Even though most of those birds were seen, it was probably not the best trip for me to take given my specific wants, needs, approaches and quirks – not the best fit for the tour realities and approach – especially as related to photography.  That does not take away from the success of the tour and its quality in most ways at least on the surface and from the perspective of other’s and there were many great moments.  The rest of this post will  be about those good moments without time spent on the mismatching elements.

I have talked about or hinted at some goals for 2017 in earlier posts. Major progress towards three important ones was hoped for on this trip.  Based on Ebird reports and reports of this WINGS trip in previous years, my early analysis for the trip suggested that there was the possibility of adding up to 13 ABA Life birds (some pretty remote), as many as 62 ABA Life photos and as many as 92 new ABA Birds for 2017.  Some species simply did not cooperate this year, as Sinaloa Wren, Plain Capped Starthroat and Aztec Thrush did not reappear in 2017 and the last White Eared Hummingbird sighting was 6 weeks before we arrived.  Road conditions precluded us trying for Buff Collared Nightjar. So that really left only seven new “Lifers” and we were able to find six of them: Mexican Whippoorwill, Tufted Flycatcher, Rufous Capped Warbler, Rose Throated Becard, Black Capped Gnatcatcher and Lucifer Hummingbird – missing the Berylline Hummingbird and Flame Colored Tanager which were both seen by others while we were in the area.  As it turned out another lifer – a Yellow Green Vireo – was also seen while we were in Arizona – the day after we had been in the same spot finding (with great difficulty) the Rose Throated Becards. The looks or photo ops for some of these birds were not terrific, at least in this group setting, but life birds are getting hard to come by and I was happy for those that we had, especially the Rufous Capped Warbler which was expertly found by a local excellent birder, Ron Beck, who joined us specifically to find this rarity in Hunter Canyon.  I had not expected to get the Warbler although I had expected seeing the Tanager, and not doing so was a major disappointment offset by finding the warbler – so it goes.

Rufous Capped Warbler – Hunter Canyon – August 7

Rufous Capped Warbler

Mount Lemmon in the Santa Catalina Mountains was a wonderful way to start our trip as the species changed as we climbed in elevation and the habitats and birdlife changed as we did.  Included in the more than 50 species we saw on our visit were Arizona specialties like Grace’s, Red Faced, Olive and Virginia’s Warblers, Yellow Eyed Junco, Painted Redstart, Mexican Jay, Greater Pewee, Bell’s and Plumbeous Vireo and Zone Tailed Hawk. We also saw Canyon Towhee’s and both Broad Tailed and Broad Billed Hummingbirds in the lowland area.  All were new for the year and new ABA photos – although in a theme to be repeated often during the trip, views were often too fleeting or distant for much quality.  I had seen all of these species here on my earlier visit.

Grace’s Warbler (ABA Life Photo)

Grace's Warbler

Olive Warbler (ABA Life Photo)

Olive Warbler2

Yellow Eyed Junco (ABA Life Photo)

Yellow Eyed Junco4

Red Faced Warbler (ABA Life Photo)

Red Faced Warbler3

Virginia’s Warbler (ABA Life Photo)

Virginia's Warbler4

Zone Tailed Hawk (ABA Life Photo)

Zone Tailed Hawk3

Painted Redstarts (ABA Life Photo)

Painted Redstarts1

Painted Redstart 3

It was cool in the mountains and no rain fell on us.  One of the oddities of the trip was that while I was gone, the Seattle area experienced a real hot spell and there were days in Arizona where temperatures were actually lower than back home.  In August yet – go figure.

After Mount Lemmon we returned to the Hampton Inn in Tucson (comfortable, convenient and very nice folks) and went on to Madera Canyon after dinner for some early night birding.  At dusk we heard and then called in a Mexican Whippoorwill – my first life bird of the trip.  Quick visuals as it flew very close to us but no chance for a photo.  A bit later we had a response from a pair of Whiskered Screech Owls which obliged us by flying to an overhanging branch right over us.  A third was heard and briefly seen.  We also had at least one Common Poorwill calling in the distance (apparently a surprise).

Whiskered Screech Owls (ABA Life Photo)

Whiskered Screech Owl (2)

Whiskered Screech Owls (3)

Whiskered Screech Owls 1 (2)

The following morning started with a visit to see a pair of Burrowing Owls we had not located the day before and then continued in the lowlands and Green Valley before returning to Madera Canyon.  Along the way we found a female Costa’s Hummingbird, Black Throated and Rufous Winged Sparrows, and an Antelope Jackrabbit.  I had been frustrated the previous day hearing but not finding any Bell’s Vireos.  Today was better as I found a Bell’s Vireo on a nest.  We had great looks at some Black Tailed Gnatcatchers and a less than great look at a female or juvenile Black Capped Gnatcatcher – but good enough to see the tail pattern that allowed the identification of Life bird #2.

Costa’s Hummingbird

Costa ' s Hummingbird Female 1

Black Throated Sparrow

Black Throated Sparrow3

Antelope Jackrabbit

Antelope Jackrabbit

Bell’s Vireo on Nest (ABA Life Photo)

Bell's Vireo at Nest (2)

Black Tailed Gnatcatcher (ABA Life Photo)

Black Tailed Gnatcatcher 1 (2)

Black Capped Gnatcatcher (ABA Life Photo)

Black Capped Gnatcatcher

We found some Cassin’s Sparrows and also at Florida Canyon we had a pair of Northern Beardless Tyrannulets – cooperating for photos and a Varied Bunting, a brief look at Yellow Billed Cuckoo and our first Lucy’s Warblers.

Northern Beardless Tyrannulet (ABA Life Photo)

Northern Beardless Tyrannulet 2

Varied Bunting (ABA Life Photo)

Varied Bunting

Yellow Billed Cuckoo

Yellow Billed Cuckoo2

Lucy’s Warbler (ABA Life Photo)

Lucy's Warbler1 (2)

Then we were back in Madera Canyon watching the many hummingbird feeders.  Nothing super exotic – lots of Black Chinned and Broad Billed Hummers and a couple of Anna’s and then we had our first Rivoli’s (formerly Magnificent) Hummingbirds.  We also had our only Arizona Woodpecker for the trip.

Black Chinned Hummingbird

Black Chinned Hummingbird

Broad Billed Hummingbird (ABA Life Photo)

Broad Billed Hummingbird4

Rivoli’s Hummingbird (ABA Life Photo)

Rivoli's Hummingbird

Arizona Woodpecker (ABA Life Photo)

Arizona Woodpecker

Full disclosure has to include that I bird better and enjoy it more when I am birding alone or in a very small group.  But the many added eyes and ears with a bigger group is often helpful and all of the participants in this group contributed in that and other ways throughout the tour.  I was especially grateful for the good eyes and ears of many in finding some tough birds – in addition to good spirits.  But the resources in this birding paradise are not limited to members of one’s own tour group.  Especially in places like Madera Canyon, there are many others around – drawn by its great birds.  I followed one of these folks across the street from the Madera feeders and we quickly found some Sulphur Bellied Flycatchers, another SE Arizona specialty and this time I was able to alert the rest of our group and they joined in.

Sulphur Bellied Flycatcher (ABA Life Photo)

Sulphur Bellied Flycatcher

Especially since our Comfort Inn accommodations in Green Valley were just “okay”, it would have been nice to have stayed at the Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon (where I had stayed on that trip so many years ago).  While there we had really good looks at a number of Mexican Jays and also learned that the Elf Owls that had nested in the area were still being seen – a fact that would prove valuable that evening.

Mexican Jay (ABA Life Photo)

Mexican Jay

After another good dinner, we headed back to Madera Canyon finding several Lesser Nighthawks enroute.  At Santa Rita Lodge, our guide played the Elf Owl call and perhaps because I wanted the photo so bad, this was a rare time when I first spied a bird – as the owl came into the open just ahead of us.  Not a great photo but no mistaking this little guy.  It was a new ABA photo for me and made up for a major disappointment in my South Texas trip in 2013.  Our guide had saved a visit to a known Elf Owl nest in a cactus for the end of the day – but it was a no-show.  I think the guide had felt almost worse than we did.

Lesser Nighthawks (ABA Life Photo)

Elf Owl (ABA Life Photo)

Elf Owl

The next morning took us to Tumacacori National Historic Park where we met Will Russell and Matt Brooks from the WINGS office in Tucson.  We were also joined by Dorian Anderson , a very interesting guy who in 2015 had done a “Bicycle Big Year”.  Dorian was critical in finding Rose Throated Becards along the Santa Cruz River.  Our views were distant and fleeting and it took a couple of hours, but we did see this species – Lifer #3 for me.  I got a terrible photo but was happy for anything.  (I later learned that a group that came the next day found the Becard’s nest and not only got good photos but also found a Yellow Green Vireo which would have been a lifer as well.

Rose Throated Becard

[Nope – too poor to really include my photo.  🙂 ]

Afterwards we headed towards Nogales and Patagonia.  We found our first Gray Hawk and at the famous Roadside Rest near Patagonia, we found a family of three Thick Billed Kingbirds which we viewed after one of our picnic lunches.

Gray Hawk (ABA Life Photo)

Gray Hawk Perched

Gray Hawk Flight

Thick Billed Kingbirds (Adult and Juvenile) (ABA Life Photo)

Thick Billed Kingbird1

Thick Billed Kingbird Juvenile

Before arriving at our fabulous next place to stay, the Casa de San Pedro B and B, we stopped at the Paton’s Hummingbird feeders and among others had our only Violet Crowned Hummingbirds.  We also had our only Inca Dove in the Paton’s yard.

Violet Crowned Hummingbird (ABA Life Photo)

Violet Crowned Hummingbird 2

Inca Dove (ABA Life Photo)

Inca Dove-r

Just as it had been cooler in Arizona than at home in Seattle, it had also been wetter as Seattle was continuing a record dry spell.  There had been rain a couple of times during our trip and at the Paton’s yard there was more.  Maybe it was because of this or maybe it was already in the works, but disaster struck for me as my camera went – DEAD!!!  The Canon 7D is supposed to be essentially almost waterproof – certainly highly resistant.  The last thing I had decided not to take as I packed for this trip was a back up camera.  Given the broken binoculars experience on the Florida trip I had packed a spare pair of bins but I already had too much stuff and just decided that there was no way the camera would fail.  Not so.  95% of the reason for the trip was to get photos, so this was a very very low moment.  We were only 3 birding days into the trip and I had no camera.  Depression was an understatement.

Deep Breath – Pause – Consider Alternate Plans A, B, C and D.  Maybe a few tears.  Definitely a few swear words.

Alternate Plan A was to order a new camera from Amazon and have it expressed to me.  At best this would take three days and it would be yet another spare camera at home.

Alternate Plan B was to ask Lynette to go to my condo and get the camera that was sitting out – the one I had decided not to take – and have her express mail it to me.  That would probably take two days and I was not real sure where the battery charger was etc.  (Besides the condo was not exactly spiffy clean…)

Alternate Plan C was to see if I might at least take a few photos with another trip members camera – fall far short of my trip goals but get some photos (I already had 33 ABA Life Photos – but was hoping for almost that many more ahead.)  At best this would be awkward.

Alternate Plan D grew out of Alternate Plan C and was one of those beautiful life moments/happenings.  All of the tour participants were really good folks – varying priorities and skill levels and backgrounds and experiences.  Many in the group took some photos, but nobody was really into the photography and three of the others were in fact using the same camera that I would have brought as my backup – the Canon SX50.  John Harris, a now retired professor from Mills College was one of the three.  He was great at finding birds (and mammals and reptiles and plants) and definitely was taking photos, but he came to my rescue and allowed me to use his camera – taking pictures for both of us.  Not what I had planned or expected but very much a saving act of kindness.

John Harris – later at the Portal Lodge

John Harris at Portal Store1

There are lots of good folks in the world – and I would bet a higher than usual percentage in the birding community.

There was now light in the tunnel and we were off to the wonderful Casa de San Pedro Bed and Breakfast for three nights – our base of operations for forays into the Huachuca Mountains.  We had seen 100 species on the trip – 3 ABA Life Birds and the 33 ABA Life Photos and 40 new ABA Year Birds.  This is a good place to close Part I and the Casa de San Pedro will be a good place to start Part II.

One thought on “August in Arizona – Part I: The Up before the Down

  1. Great trip report I have never gone in august because of the rain and heat but it sounds like you had great weather. I am going back next april with ilya and can’t wait I LOVE AZ! Cool you met Dorian he was up here interesting guy is an understatement. That is so nice of John to lend you his lens what an amazing guy. There really are kind wonderful people in the birding community! You did really well with pics getting great pics of hard to photograph birds. I probably would have broke down in tears without my camera and hire a taxi to take me all the way back to tucson to obtain a rental glad it worked out for you. too bad you couldnt get through the area for the buff nightjars but I heard it was bad from the floods… but I really want to know why you guys didnt try for the Flame colored Tanager.? that one I dont get so looking forward to hearing it.


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