Rio Rico, AZ, July 7, 2013: I left the humidity of the east coast to return to a furnace blast here in Tucson. After being gone for a month it was great to return home to my husband, my pets, and my own bed. I was barely in the door before I started filling bird feeders. There was no sign of the quail chick in the yard upon my return and I have not seen it since. I can only speculate that nature took its course, whatever that was. Though it took me a few days to readjust to being here in the desert, it didn’t take me long to start counting birds again. I submitted my first list to eBird on July 4th and haven’t missed a day since. When we had a monsoon storm on Friday, July 5th Gus and I went out to observe the flooding in the Pantano Wash. The next morning I drove to Michael Perry Park to see if there was still water in the wash but it had all subsided. Of course I brought my binoculars and camera and I ended up counting birds for an hour submitting a checklist of 21 species to eBird.
Being back in Tucson after a month I needed to rest and adjust to being back and I needed to spend time with my husband. Finally on Sunday, July 7th we decided to take a drive to Rio Rico to visit our land. We have a dream of building a house there one day, but who knows if it will ever happen. Still, it is fun to dream. The heat and humidity continued to build as we drove south. Usually it is cooler in Rio Rico even though it is farther south since it is higher in elevation and farther away from the heat dome of the city, but it can also be more humid since it is closer to Mexico and the gulf moisture. As we drove up the dirt road I could feel the sun blazing down on us. We only stayed a few minutes on the side of the mountain as the temperature rose to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. I counted birds on the land and on the ride back down the road.
We stopped at the Rio Rico Pond where I counted even more birds. There were birds everywhere and it seemed as if every SE Arizona specialty was revealing itself to me. Little did I know that there would be even more to see as we drove to Pena Blanca Lake southwest of Rio Rico.
Storm clouds were gathering as we drove the winding road towards the mountains. Inside our car I watched the temperature drop to 84F. Sunlight broke through in patches illuminating first one peak and then another. The scenery around me was outstanding as we rounded each bend with view after view.
Finally we reached Pena Blanca Lake State Park. We drove the paved road up to the upper parking lot where the reservoir opened before us. With water that lay like polished onyx between the golden hills I got out with bins and camera and started counting. A few swallows swooped over the calm water and a Western Kingbird called from a nearby tree.
My desire to explore led me farther along the trail until I came to purple-red rocky outcropping. While there were not any birds or ducks on the water, I did see a cormorant fly up and land in a distant tree. Turkey vultures flew along the ridge on dark and silent wings, naked red heads searching the slopes for something to dine on. A Gila woodpecker flew laughing over the desert scrub. I could hear birds that I could not see or identify by voice, but there were birds everywhere.
With the threat of the storm I decided I’d better not go any farther down the trail. I turned and headed back to the car. I saw movement out of the corner of my eye and turned to see the slow, ponderous flight of a Great Blue Heron as it flew low over the water.
We had driven in over a couple of currently dry washes. If that rain ever let lose it would not take them long to fill with water, trapping us until the water subsided. So, I jumped in the car and we started to drive out of the park, but then I saw a vermillion flycatcher on the side of the road. I jumped out to take its pictures as Gus pulled off to wait. At the top of a nearby bush I saw a red-shafted Northern Flicker. I decided to walk down the hill so I could count birds. Gus picked me up at the bottom and we drove to what is known as the Upper Thumb picnic area. I figured I could just take a quick look around and then we could leave. As soon as I opened the car door that idea flew the coop! There were birds, birds and more birds! I didn’t know where to look first!
A thrasher sat in a treetop. In the cove below I saw coots paddling around. Then, in another tree a male Vermillion flycatcher was joined by a male hooded oriole! I whirled and twirled trying to see all the birds, but in my mind there was one bird I was in search of. It was the object of my desire and the main reason I wanted to take this drive. I had little hope of actually finding it, but I had to try.
The Upper Thumb picnic area is on a ridge that projects into the reservoir with a cove on either side. From my lofty perch I had already examined the cove on my right as I faced the lake. Now I walked over to the left side to scan the cove below near the Lower Thumb picnic area. As I glanced down through the trees I could see little patches of the cove where on the opposite shore I saw some people walking along a trail. Then, suddenly, in the middle of the cove I saw something different.
I looked between the leafy green of tree branches to the open water where a small, dark bird paddled in the water. The head was a different shape from a coot and the body smaller. The overall appearance was dark charcoal gray and there was no white beak.
A quick look through my binoculars revealed a small grebe’s body, but this one was not a pied-billed grebe, it was a Least Grebe! The least grebe would be the last grebe I needed to have all the North American grebes on my Life List. I raised my camera to my shoulder and snapped away as the bird slowly paddled out of view. Quickly I ran to the car calling Gus to hurry up. We needed to drive back down to the Lower Thumb Picnic Area. I needed to get a better view and a better shot of this bird!
I no longer cared about the rain or the flash flooding. While the thunder continued to rumble I jumped from the car and hurried down the path. A few rain drops spattered my face as I continued down the trail. A blue grosbeak fluttered up on a reed as I hurried by. I stopped to snap a quick picture. Then a whole flock of buntings and finches fluttered out of the reeds. I took a quick look but made myself turn away and continue down the path.
Finally the cove was in view, but there was no little charcoal gray bird. I scanned the shoreline, but only found a Black Phoebe. I scanned the reeds. I scanned the middle of the cove and the floating log where I saw it last. No bird. I thought maybe it paddled out of this cove and headed for open water, so I followed the path along the curve of the ridge above me where just a few moments before I had been looking down. Nothing. Finally I my conscience kicked in and I started to feel guilty for leaving Gus standing at the edge of the first cove. I turned around and headed back.
In-between shots I just gazed through my bins looking at this sweet little bird. “Life Bird!” I kept saying to myself, “I have all the grebes!” I was so excited! I wanted to share this excitement with someone who “got it.” “Gus, do you realize how exciting this is?” I asked him as he gazed down at his smart phone. “Yup,” he said, still looking down. Oh well. Inside I was jumping for joy. All the grebes! I do not think I have any other family group completed. I was thrilled. And it was time to go.
I caught up with Gus and we walked back to the car. On the way we passed the reedy patch at the end of the cove with all the buntings and finches. This time I did stop to identify the Lesser Goldfinches and Varied Buntings that clung to reeds and grasses. Varied Buntings?
I thought to myself! Wow, that is just the icing on the cake. I couldn’t ask for more. I decided then and there, that I am in love with Pena Blanca Lake. It is both beautiful and birdy and it gave me my last, but certainly not least, Least Grebe!
Notes from my nest: Yes, I am home and I have over a thousand photos to go through. I hope to show you birds and tell you stories from the Northeast as well as keep up with all that is going on here in Tucson. Chris Rohrer came over to visit on Monday and we just sat inside and chatted. The heat is so intense right now that it makes it hard to get out, but, it will not stop us from chasing more birds! We have plans for later this week. I will let you know how THAT turns out! Meanwhile the monsoon has started and the storms keep rolling in! See you all soon!