After A Big Month and Arizona, Now What

Whether in my birding or in other pursuits, I seem to do best with a project tied to a target – a goal.  After the very intense full month of birding in Washington in January and then my Arizona blitz, I had no projects or goals in mind for February – or at least none related to birds.  This was to be a month of catching up and most importantly of significantly increasing efforts to lose some weight and get into better shape.

So far so good and my crazy concoctions of various fruits, power greens, yogurt, coconut milk and cottage cheese and or yogurt continue to taste good and are satisfying.  No sweets, no fats; seafood and lean turkey or chicken only – high fiber cereal and that’s about it.  The goal is to get back to my college era weight and much less body fat and more muscle tone.  Trying this at 70 is a whole lot different than doing so at 20 or even 40 or 60, but I think it will work – even if it takes longer than I would like.

And birding continues.  Looking for some of the species missed in January, being out with friends, just getting out.  On February 11th, I finally found a species that had eluded me on multiple tries in January when I found a flock of 40 American Pipits on Boe Road.  I spent more time looking for them and the Fir Island Gyrfalcon than for any other species in January.  Just finally was in the right place at the right time.  Wish even one had been found earlier.

American Pipit

American Pipit 1

A few days later Ann Marie Wood, Steve Pink  and I successfully chased the Ruddy Turnstone that Maxine Reid had found at Tulalip Bay.  They are uncommon in the winter and are most likely to be found at the Coast or perhaps on Ediz Hook in Port Angeles – very rare in Snohomish County.  I had not specifically looked for one in January although I had considered a trip to Ediz Hook.

Ruddy Turnstone

Ruddy Turnstone

A bird I had missed in January was a Ruffed Grouse.  Others had seen some in the Okanogan but I had not.  David Poortinga told me of a good spot where he had had some in January – The Beaver Lake Trailhead off the Mountain Loop Highway southeast of Darrington.  I decided to go on the spur of the moment one morning.  I should have done a better job looking at the weather.  There was quite a bit of snow on the roads and even more on the trail and it was cold.  The trail ran along the Sauk River and with snow on the ground and dusting the trees and the river running clear, it was beautiful.  Didn’t need any birds, it was great to be out.  Nobody else around – very peaceful.  Unfortunately there had been a lot of damage to and along the trail since David had been there (without any snow).  There were a number of downed trees and in several spots the bank was eroding and the trail was actually falling into the river.  I had to turn back before reaching the end of the trail – impassable and dangerous.

I found exactly three birds on the two mile hike – a Steller’s Jay, an American Dipper and a single Ruffed Grouse.  The Grouse flushed (as expected) so no photo.  As I was hiking and noting the free flowing Sauk River running clear and strong, I had thought there must be a Dipper somewhere.  Not long after seeing the Grouse and just before coming to a seriously eroded spot, I heard a bird singing seemingly from across the river.  At first I thought it might be a Pacific Wren and then I remembered that Dippers sing.  Sure enough, there it was on a rock in the middle of the stream.  I had seen one in Sequim in January but had not gotten a photo.  This one was fairly distant and it was very gray (with some snow still falling) but it was nice to get a photo – even if mediocre at best.

American Dipper – Singing

American Dipper

On the way back, I drove through the town of Darrington, hoping for some Crossbills or Redpolls or better yet for Bohemian Waxwings or a Pine Grosbeak.  I settled for a small flock of Evening Grosbeaks.  I had seen this species earlier in Walla Walla, but they are such striking birds – especially on a gray day.

One bird I had simply forgotten to look for in January was a Red Knot.  One had been seen fairly regularly at the spit at Fort Flagler.  Hoping that it was still, there David Poortinga and I went off to look for it on February 20th.  We stopped first to look for the Spotted Sandpiper that was being reported at the Shine Tidelands.  This was probably a mistake.  Not only did we not find the Spotted Sandpiper but it also meant losing 20 minutes before getting to Fort Flagler.  The problem was that the tide was going out and the chances of finding the Knot would be best at a high tide.  When we got to the spit we found lots of shorebirds – Dunlin, Black Turnstones, Sanderlings, and Black Bellied Plovers but no Knot.  But the birds began flying off just as we arrived and continued to do so while we were there.  It was as if there was some magic signal that said – time to leave as the tide hit a certain level.  We believed that we would have found the Knot if we had been there earlier.  Mixed in with the other shorebirds, we did find a couple of Western Sandpipers – first of the year for David.

Black Turnstone and Sanderling

Black Turnstone

Western Sandpiper

Western Sandpiper (2)

We had gotten a fairly late start and decided to return home early but with another stop at the Shine Tidelands hoping for better luck with the Spotted Sandpiper.  Although not an uncommon bird in the State, they are more often found in the spring and summer and most commonly near rivers and freshwater ponds.  They are quite uncommon in Jefferson County.  We searched the pebbly shore and were again unsuccessful – until just as we were heading out David said he saw a shorebird near the boat launch – an area where the Spotted Sandpiper had been reported.  He said it was a Killdeer but when I looked for it I could not see it – but did see – yep the Spotted Sandpiper.  This was the first one either of us had seen in Jefferson County.  Then the Killdeer appeared as well.

Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper

And just in case you are wondering after looking at the photo, in breeding plumage, the Spotted Sandpiper has very distinct spots on it breast – but none at all in non-breeding plumage like now.

Before getting back to the Kingston/Edmonds Ferry, David and I stopped at Point No Point.  Nothing rare had been reported there recently but it is always an interesting place to bird and has produced rarities over the years.  It is a particularly good place to find Bonaparte’s Gulls and sometimes there are rarer gulls like Little Gull and Franklin’s Gull as well.  Nothing rare today but it was very cool to see several hundred Bonaparte’s Gulls flying high over the water in a murmuration like Starlings.  We finally found a distant Peregrine Falcon whose presence was probably the cause of their mass movement together.

Bonaparte’s Gulls (Just a Small Portion)

Bonaparte's Gulls

We also found two pairs of Marbled Murrelets – still in their black and white winter plumage – always a nice find.  We left contemplating a return to look for the Red Knot with a better tide.

Marbled Murrelets

Marbled Murrelets

On February 22, David and I joined Ann Marie Woods and Steve Pink to again search for the Red Knot and also to look for other birds.  The projected tide was more favorable, but it had snowed the night before and we wondered about the roads and the birds.  Informed by the last visit by David and me, we first stopped again at Shine Tidelands and easily found the Spotted Sandpiper, a new county bird for both Steve and Ann Marie.  We made it down and up the hill leading to that spot in light snow – so far so good.  Off to Fort Flagler.

The tide was now more favorable – just past the actual high tide and the shorebirds were numerous and clustered on high ground on the spit which was covered with snow.  As before there were many Brant and other sea birds in the adjacent waters and many gulls and some Harlequin Ducks on the spit.  Light was great in the brilliant sunshine but it was quite cold.  We scoped the shorebirds from a distance and then methodically worked our way up the spit.



As on our previous visit, there were many Dunlin, Sanderlings and Black Bellied Plovers and we found a couple of Western Sandpipers.  This time, however, there were no Black Turnstones and instead we had a single Black Oystercatcher.

Black Bellied Plover on the Snowy Spit

Black Bellied Plover

Black Oystercatcher

Black Oystercatcher1


Black Oystercatcher Wings

We checked every shorebird and were not able to find the Red Knot – a major disappointment as it is rare in Jefferson County and would have been a new County and year bird for all.  We did find both Herring and Iceland Gulls – less uncommon than the Knot but still new birds for some.  Consolation prizes of a sort.  Moreover though, it was just fun birding with the clear skies, bright sun, snow on the ground and good birds.

We were now off to the Sequim area in Clallam County to look for some of the birds I had seen there in January but which would be new for the others.  Along the way on Highway 101 Steve spotted a Turkey Vulture soaring with its tell-tale dihedral wing position.  This was a hoped for but still surprising new year bird for me (and the others).  They usually do not come back into the Northwest until at least March, but there have been several early sightings this year.  We saw another one later in the day.

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture

We headed straight to Dungeness Landing Park (The Old Oyster House) where the target was the Willet that had been seen regularly there since last year – usually in the company of Marbled Godwits – as it had been when I saw it in January.  Tide was low and there were birds spread out in all directions.  Steve spotted some Marbled Godwits in the distance and then David found the Willet.  We never saw it in flight with its distinctive black and white wing pattern but it was an easy ID as a larger plain gray shorebird with a long straight bill.

Willet (A Long Way Off)


The Bay had many ducks of several species.  There was about to be one fewer.  An adult Bald Eagle appeared on the scene – scattering the ducks from the water.  It focused on a single one in the chaos chasing it as it tried to avoid being caught.  It was a female Northern Pintail.  Then a second adult Eagle joined the hunt and after a moment or so, one of the Eagles struck the Pintail knocking it to the water.  The chase had been exciting to watch and it now got more exciting and dramatic.  Pintails are dabbling ducks, not diving ducks.  They can submerge but do so only briefly.  They feed by tilting down and grabbing food below the surface with their long necks. I expect the Eagles knew this behavior both in selecting the target initially and also in the strategy they then employed for the kill.

In the water the Pintail would submerge briefly as the Eagles took turns diving at it from above.  Each time the Pintail resurfaced, an eagle would dive at it again.  This continued at least a dozen times.  Finally the Pintail tired and remained on the surface just a bit longer.  This time one of the Eagles grabbed it with its talons and flew off.

Eagle Taking Pintail

Bald Eagle taking Pintail4

Bald eagle taking Pintail2

But the show was far from over as the second Eagle chased the first – contesting its prize.  We don’t know if this was a mated pair, siblings or two generations (even though two full adults evidenced by complete white heads and tails).

The Second Eagle in Pursuit of the First

Bald Eagles with Pintail

After a few seconds as the Eagles swerved and cartwheeled together, the capturing Eagle dropped its prize and, still alive, the Pintail fell to the water.  But it was not going to escape.  Exhausted and probably in shock and injured, it was picked up quickly by one of the Eagles (we didn’t note if it was the original captor) and again carried away.

The Second Capture

Bald Eagles with Pintail2

This time the second Eagle flew off on its own while the victor flew to a nearby piling in the water.  It called – perhaps proclaiming its conquest – and then began its meal.

Duck for Lunch

Bald Eagle Eating Pintail

We were spellbound by the episode which took place maybe 100-150 yards away.  For awhile it had appeared that the Pintail might escape – first the chase and then the capture.  The Eagles were more adept fliers than I had expected and the tactics used to tire the non-diving duck were impressive. Predator and prey – one of nature’s basic laws.  Eagles are often and rightfully seen as scavengers.  This Eagle was a supreme hunter.

Heading next to the Three Crabs area, we first made a stop at Denny Van Horn’s eclectic shop/residence.  Denny knows as much about what’s going on bird-wise in the area as anyone and is always a fun and informative visit.  He gave us good leads and directions for some of our targets and we were off.  No owls in the fields around Three Crabs but we found a photo friendly Cooper’s Hawk on a roadside fence.  Definitely the eye of a predator.

Cooper’s Hawk

Cooper's Hawk   Cooper's Hawk1

Our next target was a female Redhead (the bird kind) that had been reported in a small pond on Simdars Road.  Following Denny’s instructions we easily found the pond and sifted through the numerous ducks to add the Redhead to our day list and and a County first for everyone.

Redhead Female

Redhead Female

The last stop was at Diamond Point where some Ruddy Ducks were seen as soon as we drove by – our final species for the day.  We had done very little birding not tied to ponds or the ocean and still had 65 species.  My only new bird for the year was the Turkey Vulture which I was very pleased to see.  The Eagle vs. Pintail drama was certainly the highlight.  It was truly a beautiful day with good friends showcasing the best of the Northwest with all the water and mountains – and sunshine – in February!!

Second Efforts – Streak Backed Oriole and Sinaloa Wren


It is 113 miles from from Exit 12 – East Ruby Road and Interstate 19 to Douglas, AZ  most of it good highway.  It is another 20 miles from Douglas to the walk-in trail at the San Bernadino National Wildlife Refuge – most of it a dusty dirt road.  Google said it would take almost three hours to get there.  The Refuge is only a few miles from the Mexican Border.  We are talking remote.  We are talking desolate and in an early Arizona Birding book, it was talking – possibly dangerous.  Who in their right mind would go there?

I guess that depends on two things: How one defines “right mind”; and how badly someone wanted to have a chance to see a Streak Backed Oriole.  All of this would have been irrelevant if the Streak Backed Oriole had continued coming to the feeder in Tucson.  It hadn’t and might not again.  I wanted to see one.  I understood that after getting to the walk-in gate it was another 45 minute walk in the desert to get to the oasis where the Oriole had been seen.  There would not be time to make the drive and do the hike while there was still sunshine that day.  I decided to make the drive and at least get familiar with the entrance to the trail planning to return the next morning early for the hike itself.

The last 15 miles or so were on a very dusty road.  The only other vehicles I saw were from the Border Patrol.  Apparently this is a high activity zone for illegal immigrants and illegal activity.  It was not a physically inviting spot and the thought of a long hike – very much alone except for maybe people with whom I wanted no intersections – had me questioning my decision.  Maybe I should simply return to Tucson the next morning and hope that other Streak Backed Oriole would return.

San Bernadino NWR – The Mountains are in Mexico

San_Bernardino NWR

Douglas, Arizona is not a prosperous place.  I felt good about the birding earlier that day and thought about a celebratory steak dinner.  I found only one restaurant that was listed as a steak house.  It looked more like a saloon when I got there.  The steaks may indeed have been good, but I was already feeling quite out of my element so settled for simple Mexican fare.

I overcame my apprehensions and headed out early hoping to catch bird activity before it got hot.  Hot it wasn’t – not even 40 degrees.  On the test drive the day before, it had been about half way on the dirt drive in I saw a Border Patrol car coming towards me.  I had signaled him to stop and asked him point blank:  “Am I safe out here?”  Not fitting the stereotype in my head, he was a very nice guy and said there were birders (his word) out here often and that I was safe.  He said the last thing anyone out here for other reasons wanted was to see anybody.  They patrolled the road frequently but there would not be anyone on the trail or in the Refuge unless more birders showed up.  It was reassuring and he wished me luck.  I felt bolstered by that input this morning.  But I saw no vehicles this time.

At least the hike in was flat and on a good trail/road.  The first bird I saw was a Phainopepla.  I would see several more.  A little further in some sparrows flew into a small shrub.  They were Black Throated Sparrows – my first of this trip and one of my favorites.  They were seen for several summers on Recreation Road in Gingko State Park in Kittitas County, Washington but have been gone for a few years no.  I hope they return.



Black Throated Sparrow

Black Throated Sparrow - Copy

The description of where the Streak Backed Oriole had been found was probably helpful if you were familiar with the Refuge.  I was not and the Refuge map was almost useless and the signage minimal and also not helpful.  Except a sign at one fork in the trail indicated there was a bathroom ahead.  I was ready to go “au naturel” if needed but it was actually a well maintained restroom – much appreciated.  I continued along that trail as it led to an oasis of trees and a pond that I could see in the distance.

A Greater Roadrunner crossed the path ahead of me.  This was the third I had seen on this trip and again it just kept running along – no photo.  A little further I saw two mammals on the dirt road – the only Jackrabbits I had seen so far.  One posed nicely before running off.



When I made it to the trees and the water, there was bird activity.  Ring Necked Ducks, Cinnamon Teal, American Coots and a Pied Billed Grebe were on the pond.  Black Phoebes were flycatching from the reeds.  Northern Flickers, Gila and Ladderbacked Woodpeckers were in the treesMore Black Throated Sparrows were joined by a Song Sparrow, Dark Eyed Juncoes, White Crowned Sparrows and Canyon Towhees.  There were very active Ruby Crowned Kinglets, a small group of Lesser Goldfinches and some House Finches.  Would there be an Oriole?

I found a way across a small stream that took me to some grassy areas bordered by mesquite and the Cottonwoods.  I was greeted by a small herd of Javelina or Collared Peccaries.  At least 14. Two days earlier on a dirt road going to the trailhead where I got my Gilded Flicker photos, a young Javelina had come out of brush immediately next to the road and I had no time to avoid it.  It was hit but when I retraced the route, it was not on the road.  Never a good feeling.



There were few birds so I returned to the area near the pond.  I remembered some report of Sora at the pond and I got a response to some playback – Sora but no Virginia Rail.  I also found both Bewick’s and Marsh Wrens.  Then a flash of color from the trees to the brush – but it was red not yellowish-orange – a male Northern Cardinal.  I was able to get a good photo but even though it was close and I knew where it was, shortly it buried itself in the thick brush and was almost invisible – a reminder that in thickets, even the brightly colored birds can be very difficult to find.  Was the Oriole here and yet invisible?

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal-1 (2)

It was barely 8:30 but already it had warmed significantly and the bird activity seemed to be dropping.  Several Yellow Rumped Warblers were flycatching and flitting between the trees, the Cinnamon Teal flew off – a few Verdin were seen.  Then another flash of color – this time yellowish-orange and not reddish.  The Oriole was up in one of the trees.  I tried to bring it in with playback but my options were limited.  Sibley does not have calls or songs for this species.  I Bird Pro does but only a single one and when I got a new phone before leaving for this trip I had forgotten to download the entire database (a multi-hour exercise).  With no internet in this area, I could only try a Bullock’s Oriole call on Sibley – hoping it was “close enough” .  It moved the Oriole closer and briefly into the open.  Good light always helps.  I had a new ABA Life Bird!!!

Streak Backed Oriole

Streak Backed Oriole1

The long dusty drive and the long hike in were worth the effort.  Part of me wished that there had been someone else there to share it with.  Another part of me preferred it this way.  Even including the Border Patrol, there was probably not another human being within 5 or even 10 miles of me.  This is often the case when I am out.  There are times in Eastern Washington when I do not see anyone for many hours and I am many miles from any towns.  Not a good thing if something bad were to happen, and I really do like birding company or even visiting with non-birders when I am out. But there are times like this one that being alone brings me closer to the birds and the natural world we share with them.  It was a very sublime moment.

The day was a success and the day was still young.  Although it would be hours before I could get back to my car and retrace steps back to civilization and other birding spots, I now had time and no agenda.  I began the hike back.  Along the way I found a bird that I had been looking for but had not yet seen –  a Black Tailed Gnatcatcher.  I had seen and photographed one in Arizona on my August trip and was surprised I had not seen one in this seemingly perfect habitat.  It was a nice way to end this visit.

Black Tailed Gnatcatcher

Black Tailed Gnatcatcher1-1 - Copy

I really had no specific plans.  My flight would leave around noon the next day.  I figured I would just head back to Tucson and figure something out on the way.  But I was feeling good and words from my friend Melissa Hafting ran through my head.  I had shared some of the trip details with her – including the unsuccessful try for the Sinaloa Wren – a real prize.  She had come back almost immediately with – it’s still there – try again.  I could take a route that would take me to the De Anza Trail again – why not?

Along the way I noticed a sign for the San Pedro House.  If I had not seen the Louisiana Waterthrush at Pena Blanca Lake, that would have been one of my stops as two had been seen there.  So too had a Green Kingfisher.  There was time, so I made the stop.  There are numerous feeders at the house and then a path to the river.  Feeders can produce great birds anywhere – but especially in Arizona.  Unfortunately here they had been taken over by dozens of White Crowned Sparrows.  I ignored the feeders and headed for the San Pedro River trail.  Along the way I had more Black Throated Sparrows and many of the other birds I had already seen on the trip.  New birds were a Sharp Shinned Hawk, a House Wren and a Gray Flycatcher.  Near the river I got a photo of a Brewer’s Sparrow – seen but not photographed at Pena Blanca and then maybe my best photo ever of a Green Tailed Towhee, my first for this trip.

Brewer’s Sparrow

Brewer's Sparrow

Green Tailed Towhee

Green Tailed Towhee-1

On the trail I met the San Pedro House morning walk group.  They were completing their walk and told me that they had just seen one of the Louisiana Waterthrushes upriver from marker 6 – good news – but also the bad news that the Green Kingfisher had not been seen that day.  I got a fleeting look at the Waterthrush and did not even look in the area where the Kingfisher had been seen earlier in the week.  It was now almost 1:30 and I still had a long ways to go.

About two hours later, I pulled once again into the parking area on Santa Gertrudis lane.  Just as before another car of birders pulled in just as I did.  They were hoping to see the Rufous Backed Robins and I am not sure they even knew of the Sinaloa Wren.  I told them I had been there two days before with a guide and that we had not found the Robins.  I told them the general area where Richard said they had been seen and that they seemed to favor the Hackberry trees.  Hopeful but not optimistic but with Melissa’s encouraging words, I headed off to look for the Wren.  The other two walked in with me for a bit and then took another trail that was more likely to produce the Robins.  As I started my search I tallied up the wrens that I seen on the trip so far.  Earlier I had seen Cactus, Rock, Canyon and Bewick’s Wrens.  This morning I had added Marsh and House Wrens.  Would seven be my lucky number – adding the best of all – a lifer Sinaloa Wren?  

By the river I met a local birder who was also looking for the Sinaloa Wren.  Even older than I am, he had brought a little folding seat and his strategy was to sit at a likely spot and hope the Wren would come to him.  We had a brief but nice visit, wished each other luck and promised to advise each other of any success.  I headed back towards the area where we had looked two days earlier and where it had last been seen.  Frankly the entire area looked good for it habitat-wise – but mostly that meant there was a lot of leaf litter and it could be buried anywhere.

All sources had said that the Sinaloa Wren had not been singing – maybe a couple of call notes – at most once or twice in the week plus that it had been seen.  Also that it had not responded to playback – or at least nobody had admitted to that.  Just as on my earlier visit, there were lots of Gila Woodpeckers, some Bridled Titmice, Verdin, Kinglets and Yellow Rumped Warblers.  But no Wrens  of any kind and except for the Woodpeckers and some Black Phoebes, it was pretty quiet.  I figured it couldn’t hurt to try some playback and went to my I Bird Pro app.  I had downloaded the Sinaloa Wren when I was here earlier so I had access to three calls/songs.  I played the chatter and “churr” notes.  No sounds but about 30 seconds later, a small brown bird came from somewhere behind me and dove into some brush a few feet ahead.  I actually felt an adrenaline hit as it was definitely a Wren and by location, behavior, response and first quick glance it was most likely the Sinaloa Wren.  I yelled “WREN” to give notice to anyone within earshot but stayed focused on it hoping for another look and a photo.

The two birders looking for the Rufous Backed Robins were close enough to hear my shout and joined me within a minute.  The local birder was too far away.  I pointed to where I had seen it fly in.  A moment later, without our seeing any movement at all, it materialized about six feet from that spot – still in the same brushy area.  We all saw it in the open for maybe 3 seconds.  It was enough time to see the supercilium, brown back and mostly brown undersides and most importantly we could clearly see the streaking on the neck that confirmed the identification.  It flew across the trail and landed in some leaf littered brush.  It buried itself again and at least this time I was able to get my camera on the spot where it had disappeared.  I clicked away hoping that one shot would capture – something.  In another 10 seconds it flew off and disappeared.

The whole area was dark and the brush was even darker.  If I had been ready for the first 3 second view completely in the open, I might have gotten a good photo, but there had simply been no time and no warning.  You have to look really hard and use some imagination, but in one of the photos I was able to take at it’s second location, you can make out the head of the Wren, the eye stripe and barely some markings on part of the throat/neck.  Even Photoshop did not help much.  At least the arrow points you to the bird – which was hard enough to find in the photo.

Sinaloa Wren (Winner of the Worst Photo Ever Award)

Sinaloa Wren

We could not relocate it again.  The whole intersection had lasted at most a couple of minutes with it being invisible most of that time.  I went back down the path maybe 150 yards and told the local birder about our experience.  He moved his seat to the area and set up shop.  I don’t know if he was successful.  My success was almost pure luck.  Yes, I made the effort and went to the right area.  Maybe the Wren had responded to playback but mostly I was in the right spot at the right time and just as easily could have missed it entirely.  Definitely one of the skulkiest birds I have seen – and also one of the most rewarding.

When I had planned this trip, there were 4 potential life birds.  I had figured the Rosy Faced Lovebird was a gimme.  I thought the Ruddy Ground Doves were likely, that the Streak Backed Oriole was a maybe and that the Sinaloa Wren was highly doubtful.  Until this morning my only success was the Lovebird and I had dipped on the Ground Doves twice and both the Oriole and the Wren once.  I was still pleased because I got those ABA first photos of the LeConte’s ThrasherLouisiana Waterthrush, Gilded Flicker and both Black Chinned and Baird’s Sparrows.  But now second efforts had produced great rewards this day and I added the Streak Backed Oriole and Sinaloa Wren to my ABA Life list.  It does not always work that way – but when it does – it keeps us trying and gives us hope fore the next time too.

I got back to Tucson fairly late and abandoned plans to bird again the next morning.  Back home – a happy birder!!

Sparrows Anyone? How About a Waterthrush as Well?

My first visit to Arizona was in December 1976,  I did not keep good records back then – just a list of new birds as I saw them without details as to where, when and how many.  I also did not keep track of all birds seen – just the new ones.  Definitely no digital world for photos, communication, personal computers etc.  But it all worked – lots of great birds and people.  Information was shared and somehow, birds were found and enjoyed.   On that trip I saw many of the Arizona specialties that were around in the winter.

Lots of memories from that first Arizona trip where in addition to general birding I also got to participate in some Christmas bird counts.  I remember the “Mexican Specialties” like Mexican Jay (then named Gray Breasted Jay) and Montezuma Quail (known then as Harlequin Quail).  I remember that there were birders from all over the country.  I remember a very young Kenn Kaufmann giving very precise reports for the Count.  I remember my first Roadrunners and lots of Thrashers and Woodpeckers, especially the Arizona Woodpecker (then named Strickland’s Woodpecker).  There is also the memory of lots of sparrows – including very different ones than I was familiar with in the Northwest and Northern California where I had started birding 5 years earlier.

Arizona Woodpecker (formerly Strickland’s Woodpecker) from my August 2017 Trip

Arizona Woodpecker

My trip this February did not expect any new sparrows for a life list but I was keen to get photos of some sparrows I had seen in that winter of 1976 but had not photographed – part of my quest/hope to get photographs of all (wishful) or most (possible) of the birds I have observed in the ABA Area.  Specifically I was hoping for ABA first photos of Baird’s and Black Chinned Sparrows and for better photos of Rufous Crowned and Rufous Winged Sparrow photos.  I had photos of the latter two from my Arizona trip last August – but they were not great and there was even a bit of doubt in my mind if I had correctly identified the two somewhat superficially similar birds.

So on February 6th, I was going to bird with Richard Fray, the local guide I had met the previous day at the De Anza trail, hoping for sparrows.  I had liked Richard when I met him and certainly appreciated his expertise and knowledge of Arizona birds.  When I learned that he had shown his clients Baird’s Sparrows that morning and he had reported both Black Chinned Sparrow and Louisiana Waterthrush (another hoped for first photo) at Pena Blanca Lake where I had missed them earlier that day – it seemed an easy decision to hire him for the day.  His website is and I liked what I saw when I visited it – full of good information.  And I also liked that he called his company Fun Birding Tours.  Granted I will generally trade success without fun for fun without success but why not at least try for both.  So I signed up.

We were heading to the Las Cienegas Grasslands east of Patagonia and Sonoita – classic Arizona birding areas.  When we got to the grasslands it was immediately clear I had made a good choice.  The grasslands are a huge area and birds could be anywhere – BUT they most definitely were going to be at the specific spot Richard took me – the Curly Horse Road Pond.  You need to go through two chained (but unlocked gates) to get there on dirt roads.  On the way in we saw other birders wandering the grasslands at large.  Maybe they found their targets, maybe not, but when we arrived at the Pond, it was obviously the place to be.  There were dozens of sparrows attracted by the only water for miles.  Better yet in addition to beautiful grass, there were fence lines and a few small shrubs – perfect perching spots – and posing spots for photos.  Richard said there would mostly be Savannah Sparrows but we should find Baird’s and Grasshopper Sparrows as well in addition to the possibility of Chestnut Collared Longspurs – another grasslands species.

It didn’t take long.  The first few birds we saw were Savannah Sparrows but then with perfect low light behind us I saw what I thought might be and hoped would be a Baird’s Sparrow perched in the open on a small bush.  Richard confirmed the ID and I had a photo – the first of many of a species that I thought was a long shot for this trip.

Baird’s Sparrow (First ABA Photo)

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Over the next 45 minutes we watched a sparrow parade.  They would fly in from the grasses and either go directly to the pond for a drink or would perch on a shrub before hitting the waters edge.  By far the most abundant were the Savannah Sparrows but there were quite a few Vesper Sparrows, Grasshopper Sparrows, some Brewer’s Sparrows and more Baird’s.

Grasshopper Sparrow

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Vesper Sparrow

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Another Baird’s Sparrow at the Pond’s Edge

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We stood above the pond and could watch the sparrows in the beaten down grass on the shore as the sparrows came in – almost invisible at times as their markings provided perfect camouflage.  A particularly fun observation was of Baird’s Sparrows and a Grasshopper Sparrow together almost disappearing.

Baird’s Sparrow and Grasshopper Sparrow in Grass at Pond


While we watched on numerous occasions small flocks of Chestnut Collared Longspurs would fly in – land for a few seconds – always at the far end of the pond – and then take off again.  Very difficult to get good photos even in the good light.  Here are a couple of my attempts.

Chestnut Collared Longspurs

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Flight Shot

Chestnut Longspur Flight-1

At one point all of the Sparrows at the pond’s edge – maybe 25 or so – took off at once.  A flock of Longspurs that was coming in, swerved away from the pond as well.  It was a Merlin looking for breakfast.  It seemed to focus on one of the Longspurs and followed in closely through two turns but a last diversion meant an escape.  It perched on a nearby fence post and the birds remained quiet for 5 or 10 minutes.



It was hard to leave this beautiful spot with its ongoing show but there were other places to go and it had been a truly wonderful visit.  Richard had certainly come through on the Baird’s Sparrow.  He had seen a Sprague’s Pipit not far away the day before.  It was the only one reported in Arizona this year.  I had only seen one before and would have loved a photo.  We knew the odds were against us but it was worth a try to return to the spot it was seen.  Unfortunately when we got there – in the middle of nowhere – there was a pickup and trailer on the exact spot – a couple flying model airplanes.  It was a good spot for them – not disturbing anyone – well maybe except for us – but that’s the luck of the draw.  They were clearly enjoying their passion.  Too bad they could not have waited another day…

Sprague’s Pipit from the Previous Day – Rats!!

Jen's Sprague's Pipit

We retraced our steps and went west – crossing I-19 and heading to Pena Blanca Lake.  We arrived about 11:15 a.m. not too different than the time I was there the previous day.  This time however we went directly to the “old boat launch spot” – where Richard had seen the Louisiana Waterthrush earlier in the week.  He reminded me that this was also a great spot for sparrows and that a Black Chinned Sparrow had also been there.

Maybe 15  minutes after we arrived I saw a “small bird” fly over and land in a tall tree behind us in poor light.  This was another case where Richard paid big dividends.  I had noticed, sort of, that the bird seemed to have a relatively long tail.  Richard noticed this too but his expertise told him that it thus might be a Black Chinned Sparrow.  It was impossible for me to tell this looking directly into the sun, but he had a good enough view to be pretty sure.  With a little coaxing we got the bird to fly down and land in some brush in front of us.  At first it was buried but I could make out the fieldmarks for the desired species.  Now about that picture – the real goal.  After a few moments it was out in the open and I had another new ABA photo.

Black Chinned Sparrow (First ABA Photo)

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This species was one of the disappointing misses on my August trip and making up for that was one of the key reasons for this trip in February.  Another was the possibility of that Louisiana Waterthrush and that too soon became a reality.  The Waterthrush’s chip note is a very high pitched metallic “tink”.  We were at a spot that looked perfect for the Waterthrush – just where Richard had first seen it and where I had searched hard with other birders the previous day.  It had to be there.  Maybe 15 minutes after the Black Chinned Sparrow left, Richard said he thought he had heard the call note.  A bit later I heard it as well.  The note is sufficiently distinct that a “lister” could claim the ID on the sound alone.  My interest though was on a visual and much more importantly on a photo.  Finally the Waterthrush obliged.

Louisiana Waterthrush (First ABA Photo)

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The visit was a big success – both targets seen well and photographed.  But there was more.  I might have it out of order but both Rufous Winged and Rufous Crowned Sparrows also put in an appearance.  It was particularly nice that we could actually see the rufous shoulder patch in the former – making now irrelevant whatever doubts I may have had with my photos from August.

Rufous Winged Sparrow

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Rufous Winged Sparrow Front-1

Rufous Crowned Sparrow

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Rufous Crowned Sparrow-1

Definitely Mission Accomplished!!  But there were other birds there as well.  A distant fly by of some Mexican Jays, Lincoln’s and White Crowned Sparrows, Gila and Acorn Woodpeckers and a Red Naped Sapsucker.  My favorite though was a very photo friendly male Pyrrhuloxia.


Pyrrhuloxia Male-1

Definitely one of the best 90 minutes of productive birding I have had.  Time to leave.  I had a long trip ahead of me to be in position for another attempt at Streak Backed Oriole the next morning a couple of hours away – or we may have just continued birding without targets – as Richard’s company says – Fun Birding Tours!!

Richard drove me back to my car and I said my goodbye and my great appreciation for a great day.  Richard is originally from England and grew up in a birding family.  I bird a lot in Washington with Steve Pink another former Brit.  Our languages are almost the same but I admit that I enjoy the accent and the occasional odd phrases.  One I do like is that Steve always signs off with “Cheers”.  Works for me.  Cheers Richard.  It was “smashing”.

Richard Fray

Richard Fray

I started this post recalling my first Arizona visit and all the sparrows.  The success with Richard had brought my sparrow list for the trip up to 14 species.  I would add 4 more the next day.  And if I were to include species seen in Arizona previously the total would be 25.  Definitely a sparrow rich State!!

Sunny Arizona in February – Loving, Thrashing and Flicking but Ungrounded (Please Excuse All These Puns)

In August last year, Frank Caruso and I went on the Wings “Second Spring” tour in Arizona.  Except for a serious camera meltdown (actually more a washout), it was a great trip with lots of birds.  I chronicled that trip in several blog posts last year.  As I indicated in my previous post, after my Washington “Big Month”, I was going to be concentrating out of state trying to add a few ABA Life Birds and Life Photos.  Adventure one was a return to Arizona with some very specific targets to seek.

I took the early (6:00 a.m.) Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle to Phoenix.  That required a very early wake up but provided two significant advantages compared to later flights: no traffic getting to the airport and an arrival sufficiently early to allow for some birding that first day. I flew into Phoenix rather than Tucson expressly to find a Rosy Faced Lovebird – another of those escaped exotics that have established viable communities and are recognized by the ABA.  This also gave me the best shot at finding a LeConte’s Thrasher at “the Thrasher Spot” west of Phoenix at the intersection of Baseline Road and Salome Highway.

After picking up my rental car, I went straight from the airport to Encanto Park – less than 8 miles away.  “Everyone” had easily found the Lovebirds at this park.  I thought I was going to join everyone when I saw a single parrot like bird fly away from me as I entered the park.  I saw it well enough to know it was my quarry but I never saw it or any other Lovebirds (at least avian ones) despite searching quite a while.  It is a big place and it was a Sunday with many families.  Maybe I looked in the wrong places or was just unlucky, but I was not going too be happy if that was the only look I would get – and definitely no photo.  I had already spent more time than I had planned so I headed off to a hoped for date with a Thrasher.

The Thrasher spot looked perfect.  Dry, sandy, with lots of scattered small shrubs.  Places for Thrashers to perch and to run along and hide.  I spent an hour finding a total of three birds – White Crowned Sparrows and was getting pretty depressed.  I decided to try another area on the other side of Baseline Road and after another 20 minutes found some Thrashers – a scurrying LeConte’s Thrasher and two scurrying Crissal Thrashers.  The photos of the latter were diagnostic at best but I had other photos from the trip in August.  The photo of the LeConte’s was definitely more than expected as my first photo of this species.

LeConte’s Thrasher

LeConte's Thrasher

No longer depressed, I was determined to find some friendlier Rosy Faced Lovebirds.  Quick research on Birder’s Dashboard showed that a large number had been seen fairly recently at Steele Indian School Park so off I went.  It was another large park filled with families, but it was also filled with Rosy Faced Lovebirds and I was able to find a photo friendly one quickly and then many more – even friendlier.  I felt better counting a new ABA Life Bird.

Rosy Faced Lovebird

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Interestingly in one group of maybe six there was one that was quite blue and without the rosy face.  Everything else matched.  I looked online for a similar photo and found that the blue form is a recessive color trait.  It was the only one I saw in maybe 25+ birds.

Rosy Faced Lovebird – Blue Form

Rosy Faced Lovebird Blue

The day was looking up and I had one more target – a photo of a Gilded Flicker.  It was possible to see them in a number of spots and if I had missed the Lovebirds elsewhere I would have paid the admission charge for entry to the Botanical Gardens and probably would have found them there.  Instead, with the success with the Lovebirds, I headed east to the Phoenician Resort and environs in Scottsdale.  There were many reports from this area.  Definitely the high rent district – some beautiful homes and the resort itself was quite posh.  A Gilded Flicker flew overhead as I was driving on Camelback Road – but there was no opportunity to stop.  This happened again as I turned onto the resort entryway.  But I could not find perched birds anywhere.

I found a promising spot and turned onto 54th Street and found the Mount Claret Center which had feeders at a residence.  Surely a Flicker would come in.  Nope but there were nice other birds – a Cactus Wren building a nest, Gila Woodpeckers, an Abert’s Towhee, a Northern Mockingbird and a Curved Billed Thrasher – classic Arizona suburban lowland birds.

Curved Billed Thrasher

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Abert’s Towhee

Abert's Towhee

Cactus Wren

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Gila Woodpecker

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Again time to move on.  My plan was to spend the night in Tucson and there was one stop to make on the way – the Red Rock Feedlots where Ruddy Ground Doves were being seen.  Maybe it would have mattered – maybe not – but the USB charging port on the car was not working and I had not noticed it until too late.  I knew how to get to the feedlots but I did not know where the Ruddy Ground Doves had been seen.  I now had no access to the internet or to the files I had saved to help find my targeted birds.  Next time I will print out hard copies. I drove around the entire feedlot – a large one – twice and saw hundreds of Doves but no Ground Doves or Inca Doves with which they had been seen.  I would have to come back the next morning – armed with more information.

After a night in Tucson I returned to the feedlots the next morning knowing that the Ruddy Ground Doves had been seen near the ranch house.  I drove to the west end of the feedlot where the house was located – uh-oh.  A crew was at work raking the area all around the house – exactly where the doves had been seen.  Hundreds of doves elsewhere, but none near the house at all.  There were to be no Ruddy Ground Doves on this trip – an ABA Lifer opportunity lost.  So just as had been the case the previous day –  a disappointing start.  I was determined to make up for it with a photo of a Gilded Flicker and I had some good spots to try.  The first was the El Camino de Cerro trailhead.  It was a beautiful spot with many Saguaro Cacti – perfect for the Flickers.

Indeed I spied my first Flicker as soon as I parked – but would be a Gilded Flicker or the also present red shafted version of Northern Flicker – both with red malar lines. A closer look in the brilliant sunshine showed first the cinnamon head and then the golden yellow underwing and undertail of my target.  I had a pair of Gilded Flickers and was able to call them in very close for super photos.

Gilded Flicker Male (Red Malar Line)

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Gilded Flicker Female (No Malar Line)

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There were lots of Gila Woodpeckers there as well as my first Verdin, Pyrrhuloxia and Phainopeplas of the trip.

Gila Woodpecker Coming in For a Landing

Gila Landing

I was disappointed not to get the Ruddy Ground Doves but I had REALLY wanted a photo of the Gilded Flicker – an ABA photo – so I was very pleased.  Now I was off for one of the potentially highlights of the trip.  A very rare Streak Backed Oriole had been coming irregularly to a feeder in Tucson.  Maybe I would be lucky.

There were two birders at the stakeout spot when I arrived.  One was local and the other was from Minnesota.  They had not been there too long – but they had not seen the Oriole either.  It had last been seen two days earlier.  We gave it an hour and did not see it.  It was a fun visit – but another disappointment.  Another Streak Backed Oriole was being reported along the Mexican border – a long ways off.  Maybe that would be another opportunity – but that is a story for my next blog post.  Looking at Ebird today, it appears that the Tucson Oriole was not seen again after February 3rd – that time two days before I looked.

An Ebird report listed two of my target species at Pena Blanca Lake – about 30 miles away.  Here was a chance for two ABA Life Photos – Black Chinned Sparrow and Louisiana Waterthrush.  One report had mentioned a boat ramp and that is where I parked and began my search.  Unfortunately I found neither bird.  As I was leaving I noticed a rough parking area at a different part of the lake and as I pulled in, two people were getting out of their car and heading out.  Their binoculars suggested “birders” and I caught up with them.  They were local and were familiar with the area and were also looking for the Waterthrush.  Apparently this was the “old boat launch” although it gave no appearance of being such – and this is where the bird had been seen previously.  Sadly even with their expertise and good eyes, we found no Waterthrush and no Black Chinned Sparrow.  I added Canyon Wren, Rock Wren, Blue Gray Gnatcatcher, Lark and Chipping Sparrow, Hutton’s Vireo, Acorn Woodpecker, White Breasted Nuthatch and Canyon Towhee to my trip list – but no go on the targets.

White Breasted Nuthatch

White Breasted Nuthatch-1

One more stop for the day – to the De Anza Trail off Santa Gertrudis Lane to try for a very rare and very hard to find Sinaloa Wren that had been seen there off and on for the past couple of weeks.  Everyone said this was a very challenging bird – very secretive and unresponsive to calls and playback, it could be at your feet in the thick leaf litter and not be seen.  More likely it was in leaf litter somewhere else along the mile of similar habitat along the river.  You had to be in the right place at the right time.

Cornell describes this rare bird as “a medium sized wren that is endemic to western Mexico. Its range has been expanding northwards in recent decades, however, and Sinaloa Wren now is a rare but regular visitor to southern Arizona (United States)…(it) inhabits the understory of tropical deciduous forest.”  As I was parking three other birders were getting out of there vehicle – also looking for the Wren but additionally hoping for Rufous Backed Robin and/or Rose Throated Becard – both of which had been seen in the area recently.  I would have loved to have seen either of those birds as well but had seen and photographed both last year so they were not a priority.  Indeed it was at this same location that I had seen the Becard on the Wings trip.

It could have been an awkward situation as this was a guided group.  The two birders were friends – one from North Carolina and the other from Minnesota.  The guide was Richard Fray – whose name I had just heard at Pena Blanca Lake – from the two locals that I had met there.  It was Richard who had reported the Black Chinned Sparrow and the Louisiana Waterthrush there.  I was allowed to join the group as “additional eyes” although I clearly was the one who was going to get the most benefit both from their additional eyes and from Richard’s expertise.

Without going into all the details, we worked very hard to try to find the challenging birds – and we were not successful.  We met someone who had seen the Wren that morning but had not been able to relocate it in the afternoon.  It was on his third attempt to locate the rarity that he had success.  I spoke to or heard of many birders who had been there that often or even on more attempts without success. We did have other birds – Black Phoebe, Bridled Titmouse, Hammond’s Flycatcher, Great Horned Owl, Yellow Rumped and Black Throated Gray Warblers among others.  The Black Throated Gray Warbler may have been the highlight for the two women clients as they are a Western species.  The Bridled Titmouse is always an appreciated species – even though common in this habitat.

Bridled Titmouse

Bridled Titmouse

So again – fun birding, good company and some nice birds – but disappointing not to find the targets or the rarities.  But this day would have a bonus.  I was very impressed with Richard’s knowledge and birding style.  He did not have a commitment for the next day.  Earlier he had taken these clients to a spot which had Baird’s Sparrows and they had found a Sprague’s Pipit – the only one reported in Arizona this year.  Both of those species were on my target list and he obviously knew about the Black Chinned Sparrow and Louisiana Waterthrush at Pena Blanca Lake.  I signed on for his help the next day.  That story will be in my next post.