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
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 arizonabirder.com 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)
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.
Another Baird’s Sparrow at the Pond’s Edge
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
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!!
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)
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)
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
Rufous Crowned Sparrow
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.
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”.
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!!