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

Rosy Faced Lovebird A - Copy

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

Curve Billed Thrasher1-1

Abert’s Towhee

Abert's Towhee

Cactus Wren

Cactus Wren2 - Copy

Gila Woodpecker

Gila Woodpecker1.jpg

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)

Gilded Flicker1 - Copy

Gilded Flicker Female (No Malar Line)

Gilded Flicker Female2-1 - Copy

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.



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

  1. Congrats blair sounds like a fantastic trip
    I think you went to the wrong spot at encanto park because I did that my first visit and didn’t find them but if you go to the spot by the parking lot and washrooms and tennis courts you can’t miss them

    Cool you found a blue form

    I am Very impressed by your le contes Thrasher shot I would love a shot like that of one.

    Too bad about the ruddy ground dove I have dipped several times on that species

    Huge congrats for your patience and perserverance on the Sinaloa Wren so glad you got it would love to see one.

    That’s also too bad about the streaked backed Oriole 😦 but you can’t complain you got awesome shots of black chinned Sparrow and many others



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