In recent blogs, I have bemoaned missing all the wonderful rare birds being seen in the birder’s mecca of Southeast Arizona. After seeing reports from Washington birders and talking to people who had flown recently and felt they were safe, I finally booked a flight for a short visit targeting some of the remaining rarities. I really needed to get away as the impact of COVID-19 restrictions, a crazy election season and too many unsuccessful recent chases in Washington had me feeling pretty low. As has been the case from the first time we met, Cindy was understanding and supportive, assuaging my guilt for a first jump into the world of air travel since the pandemic had set in.
The bad news was that there had been no recent reports of the Plain Capped Starthroat, Berylline and White Eared Hummingbirds, Crescent Chested Warbler, Buff Breasted Nightjar and Flame Colored Tanager that had been present earlier. The good news and sufficient reason to go was that there were daily sightings of Ruddy Ground Dove and Eared Quetzal which would be ABA Lifers and Northern Jacana which would be an ABA Photo lifer. I thought the Ground Dove and Jacana would be sure things and easy and that the Quetzal, the highest priority, would be probable but might take some work.
The plan was to fly to Phoenix on the evening of October 31st, driving to Casa Grande for the night, and then continuing to the bridge over the Santa Cruz River early on November 1st for the Jacana and then on to Himmel Park in Tucson where the Ruddy Ground Doves were being reported daily. I left most of that day for those two species to be followed by the 3 hour drive to Cave Creek Canyon to look for the Eared Quetzal the following day. I left the third day open to clean up any misses before driving back to Phoenix for a night flight home. Things went only somewhat according to plan.
My worries about an absence of social distancing at the airport disappeared quickly as I was the ONLY person going though security when I arrived and then found plenty of room at the gate waiting area. The flight was about one-half full with all center seats unsold per the COVID-19 changes adopted by Alaska Airlines. The flight left on time and we were treated to an awesome close up view of Mount Rainier.
A good flight and then to my rental car at Phoenix. The rental car center is HUGE!!! I must have walked 1/4 mile to get to the car. An easy drive to the motel in Casa Grande where I was “upgraded” to a room with a king bed. Unfortunately the room was across from the ice machine and a soda machine. Their condensers ran all night and I doubt I got more than 3 hours sleep. So up early for the hour drive to the W. Ina Road stakeout for the Northern Jacana – hopefully.
All the reports said the bird was feeding on vegetation on the south side of the bicycle path on the bridge over the river. The pull out was not clearly “public” and a police car was parked adjacent to it. I decided it best to ask if it was okay to park there. The officer wondered about my camera and binoculars but said it was fine. I wondered if I had disturbed his morning nap.
I had seen a Northern Jacana at Manor Lake in Texas on April 25, 1978 but was not taking photos then. They were regular there then but long ago became very hard to find. I have been working to get photos of ABA birds seen in those early days and had gotten the missing list down to 15 species (with another 10 seen but not photographed in more recent years) so I needed a photo to go with an observation. As soon as I got to the right spot on the bridge I spotted a reddish brown bird with a bright yellow bill and knob on its forehead feeding on water plants. It was far away but no doubt I had my target. It took all of one second. The light was only so-so and the bird was distant, so I got only very crappy photos. Good enough for an ID and my ABA Photo List but not very satisfying. I waited for 20 minutes hoping the Jacana would move to patches closer to me, but it moved farther out instead. I decided to move on to go for the Ruddy Ground Dove at Himmel Park in Tucson about an hour away.
Northern Jacana – First ABA Photos – Awful Ones
All of the reports indicated that the Ground Doves (as many as 4) were seen in the company of House Finches feeding on the ground near the library at the southwest corner of the park. I quickly found the library and could see the probable grazing area. Looking good — well maybe not. There were lots of House Finches and Lark Sparrows and Yellow Rumped Warblers and Dark Eyed Juncoes but no doves at all. I thought it was going to be easy – silly me. I had traveled this road before trying for Ruddy Ground Doves at the Red Rock feedlots in Arizona a couple of years ago. They had been seen near the ranch house. When I got there, a crew of six men were cleaning or landscaping or whatever at the spot. No birds anywhere.
What I had not planned on was that it was Sunday morning and the park was full of people enjoying it for things other than birds, including MANY folks with their dogs off leash despite the signs requiring the contrary. And many times the owners and their dogs went right through the area where the doves had been seen. Was that the reason that I did not find my target? As I said earlier there were many House Finches and many Lark Sparrows but not a single dove. But as is often the case, there were consolation prizes including several Vermilion Flycatchers, a couple of Abert’s Towhees and a rare for the location Clay Colored Sparrow. And it wasn’t just me as there were several local birders there looking for the doves including one who had seen them there previously and was very familiar with the area. Just not to be this time. I spent over an hour searching and then moved to Plan B which was another nearby park where Ruddy Doves had been reported the day before.
That next stop was Fort Lowell Park and Pantano Wash. Not quite as many people or dogs and several birders. I asked one if he had seen the Ruddy Ground Doves and was told that two had been seen maybe an hour ago in the same area they had been reported the day before. I found Verdin, two Phainopeplas, more Vermilion Flycatchers, Lesser Goldfinches, many House Finches, Dark Eyed Juncoes, Lark and Chipping Sparrows, a pair of Western Meadowlarks and 5 Western Bluebirds. The only doves were fly over Rock Pigeons. Another hour was spent mostly in the area where the doves had been reported. I was beginning to feel jinxed.
Since I had gotten an early start it was now just past 9:30. There was one more park to try. Palo Verde Park was another 15 minutes away. The good news was that there were very few people. There were also many doves – 2 Mourning Doves and at least 40 Rock Pigeons. No Ground Doves – of any type. There were over 30 Lark Sparrows which was probably more than I had seen total in my life previously. I gave it a half hour and then conceded defeat. It was 11:00 a.m. and about 3 hours to Cave Creek Canyon where I hoped an Eared Quetzal was waiting for me.