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
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
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 trees. More 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?
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
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
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.
Green Tailed Towhee
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)
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 Thrasher, Louisiana 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!!