November 16, 2011

Little Brown Bird Bonanza

My trip report from Arizona...

November 15 – Finally on our way home today. Noah and I arrived in Phoenix, AZ on November 8 and drove down to Tucson that afternoon. Very early on November 9 I met local bird guide Stuart Healy in Sierra Vista and we headed out for some targeted birding. My focus for this trip was on sparrows and flycatchers. We started out in the San Rafael Valley right at dawn, checking the wire fences for sparrows as they came up out of the grass. We had wonderful looks at Savannah, Vesper and Grasshopper Sparrows. It took a little searching but eventually we had roughly six BAIRD'S SPARROWS (Life Bird) join the others on the fence! Spectacular looks in the early morning sun. I really enjoyed this bird; even more than I thought I would. With my first main target out of the way we spent some time looking for other interesting open country birds. No luck with Sprague's Pipit though while we were looking we found another beautiful and very cooperative Baird's Sparrow. We waited around for a long time before we had a flock of CHESTNUT-COLLARED LONGSPURS (Life Bird) fly over. Definitely a “better view desired” species. I heard them call and noticed their flight pattern but it was an exceptionally bad and brief look. A very pale and distant Merlin was a nice find here though. On our way out of the valley we made a more-or-less random stop to investigate some habitat along the road. There was a lot of activity in the area including a nice GREEN-TAILED TOWHEE, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Phainopepla and another one of my main targets BLACK-CHINNED SPARROW (Life Bird)! This was a nice surprise and I had some great scope views. Next we headed to Patagonia Lake State Park. The wind had begun to pick up and things got more difficult to track down. We did have a flock of LARK BUNTINGS (Life Bird) along the entrance road. After a long time searching Stuart eventually found a pair of RUFOUS-WINGED SPARROWS (Life Bird) hunkered down in the bushes. I had fantastic looks at them but only managed some mediocre photos. Then we switched our focus to flycatchers and walked the birding trail up along the creek. Pretty early on we found two GRAY FLYCATCHERS (Life Bird) but after a couple hours of looking we still couldn't turn up either a Dusky or Hammond's unfortunately. On our way out, feeling somewhat defeated, we had a fantastic consolation bird: a male BLACK-CAPPED GNATCATCHER (Life Bird) in with a group of titmice and nuthatches. I honestly felt a little out of my league distinguishing this bird from a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. The visual differences were very subtle and I wasn't prepared to know what to look for in this plumage. Fortunately the bird was very responsive to a tape, called often and gave unbelievably close views. That evening Noah and I drove around the eastern portion of the Saguaro National Park and I was able to add Rock Wren, Brewer's and Black-throated Sparrows to my list. The next day I met Stuart in Sonoita and we attempted to “clean up” some of the things we missed the day before. Started out by thoroughly birding Pena Blanca Lake. On our way we happened across a pair of CASSIN'S KINGBIRDS which was nice. At the lake we added some birds for my trip list including 15+ LEAST GREBES, Lincoln's, Lark and White-throated Sparrows but unfortunately, still no luck with the empids. So it was back to Patagonia Lake. Pretty remarkably, Stuart was able to get a CASSIN'S SPARROW (Life Bird) to come out in the open for some good looks. I know this species is supposedly very easy in the spring but I was excited to add it to my sparrow bonanza. We spent the rest of our time together diligently looking for my missing empids with no luck. Pretty frustrating, though again we had a nice consolation with an ASH-THROATED FLYCATCHER (Life Bird) that posed for some pics and called a few times. BLACK-THROATED GRAY WARBLER and LAWRENCE'S GOLDFINCH were nice as well. On November 11 Noah and I met up with mom and Dave and we decided to drive up Mount Lemmon. New birds for the trip were a CACTUS WREN on the way in a McDonald's parking lot, a surprise CANYON WREN along the road and great looks at YELLOW-EYED JUNCO. The weekend passed by uneventfully in birding terms. On November 14 Noah and I took a morning birding detour / scenic route back to Phoenix. We began by trying (unsuccessfully) to get to the Sweetwater Wetlands and we pulled over in Christopher Columbus Park just to check Noah's iPhone for directions. I happened to look over the hedge row and found a pair of ABERT'S TOWHEES (Life Bird) right there, next to the car! Unfortunately they flushed when I walked over toward them and I never did get a pic but it was a good start to the day. Other birds in the hedge row included more LAWRENCE'S GOLDFINCHES and Orange-crowned Warblers. After that we drove out toward the Desert Museum, west of Tucson. We spent some time just hanging out in the habitat. CURVE-BILLED THRASHERS were pretty easy to find. It took a while but I finally had some good looks at GILDED FLICKER (Life Bird), my last North American woodpecker, not counting Ivory-billed of course. Already doing very well, our final day still had a couple more good birds like wonderful looks at a Peregrine Falcon, another flock of Lark Buntings and just to round things out, several SAGE SPARROWS. That evening, back in Phoenix I had a mysterious NIGHTHAWK species flying around over the neighborhood we were staying in. I didn't have bins with me and didn't hear it call so I really have no idea which one it was, though I suspect Lesser is probably more likely. Oh well. I ended the week with 108 species, including eleven lifers. But the number I'm most excited about... 20 species of sparrows plus 4 towhees! I love being able to focus on one family like that. My year list is now at 366.

Cassin's Sparrow
Curve-billed ThrasherYellow-eyed JuncoCactus WrenBlack-capped GnatcatcherAsh-throated FlycatcherLark BuntingGilded Flicker
And my personal favorite... Baird's Sparrow