It’s been a busy holiday season and Chris and I had not been able to go birding together even though he has time off from work. So, with my guys busy watching football on Sunday Chris and I made arrangements to go birding together that morning. We talked about driving out to Arivaca Cienega since I have not been there since moving back to Tucson, but we changed our minds that morning when we both realized we were too tired to go that far. Instead we opted to drive to Montosa Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains to see if we could find the Black-capped Gnatcatcher, which would be a Life Bird for both of us.
While the rest of the United States is freezing beneath a blanket of snow, ice and arctic cold, we are enjoying glorious blue skies and soothing warm temperatures that are ranging from the mid 60’s to the low 70’s here! Though there is a bit of a chill in the air as we set out, it isn’t long before the blazing sun is driving the temperature ever higher. As we turn onto Elephant Head Road the sun is almost blinding, but I pull off the road and park the car when we see birds everywhere on both sides of the road. Car after car goes racing by as Chris and I stand there with bins and camera counting rufous-winged sparrows, white-crowned sparrows, lark sparrows, pyrruloxias, 2 red-tailed hawks, and a Gila woodpecker and a black phoebe in the trees over a farm pond. Our 26 minute stop netted us 134 species of birds in that location alone and we are just getting started!
The heavy traffic on Elephant Head Road finally causes us to drive on, but all along the way we continue to count birds. I am pleased when we turn onto Hopkins Road and the traffic diminishes greatly. Now I drive slowly up the mountainside stopping whenever we see birds. We spot a greater roadrunner alongside the road and drive by slowly hoping for a photo op. The bird is on Chris’ side of the car, so he takes the shot. We are seeing and hearing Rufous-winged sparrows and Black-throated sparrows everywhere. With the knowledge that I will be moving back to Maine soon, I look at each bird with a bit of sweet sadness knowing that it may be a very long time before I ever seen them again.
When we arrive at the canyon we pull into the observatory parking lot where there is a picnic area and nature trail. there is also a restroom here with flush toilets, a luxury for me when we are out birding in the back of beyond like this. I do not think we will be here long, so I leave my camera in the car and head for the restroom while Chris walks around with his camera in hand to check things out. The restroom is lower than the parking lot and down some steps to the nature trail, so when I come out, Chris is already checking out birds which seem to be everywhere! I quickly join him and we start counting as sparrows and canyon towhees are everywhere! Ruby-crowned kinglets are bouncing in the trees as well as a pair of Bewicks wrens! We hardly know where to look first when suddenly i see a skunk ambling along through the brush. The skunk is now between me and the parking lot where my car and my camera are! I curse myself for not bring it with me because the photography opportunities are everywhere! While we are fairly close to the skunk, it pays us no mind as it scampers into a culvert under the trail and disappears. Chris and I both watch for it to come out the other end but it never does. We continue around the loop trail and come up the other side and back to the parking lot.
Chris got this perfect shot of a rufous-winged sparrows in the loop trail. You can even see the rufous on its upper wing coverts as well as the double-whisker marks which are the field marks of this species. After getting back in the car we continue up the road in search of the Black-capped Gnatcatcher. About a half-mile up I pull off the road and we get out and start walking. This is the area where the gnatcatchers have been seen before. In fact, according to the info Chris has, someone saw them in this exact location yesterday! But, in stark contrast to the lower nature trail and picnic area, today all is quiet. At first we do not see ANY birds. We walk along a dirt road watching and listening, but all we find are a few hunters or campers picnicking in the mesquite woods.
We emerge back onto the paved road near the Elephant Head trail. We are just starting to see a few birds when a pair of hikers come up the trail with their dog. When the dog sees us it starts to bark. Loudly. There go the birds! The women hesitate and are apologetic. We take it all in good stride and continue on our way. But, all our seeking and searching only yields us a pair of ladder-backed woodpeckers. while we are busy looking at them I hear a strange and loud scream. I know it sounds familiar, but its been awhile. I gaze around, then look overhead to find a pair of Red-tailed hawks flying close together overhead. Chris and I finally decide to cash it in and with our stomachs rumbling we head down the mountain.
It is our plan now to head straight to town and get something to eat! We have not eaten since 8 AM and it is now almost two, but as we are heading down the mountain Chris start to read the latest info from the rare bird alert. he tells me that a Harris's sparrow has been spotted in Tucson near Himmel Park and it was seen just a half hour ago! We have a quick discussion and decide to head for the park. Our tummies can wait! When we arrive we drive around the park to Forgues road where we park on the street. As son as we exit the car we are greeted by another birder who just saw the sparrow 10 minutes ago! It is a short walk to a nearby alley way where some local Tucson Birders are gathered looking for the bird. Mark Stevenson and Molly Pollock are there and have already seen the bird. Andrew Core soon shows up and we spend the next hour and a half looking and searching for it. We know it is nearby, but where will it pop up next! Mark and Molly soon leave as they have already seen the bird. It is Andrew who finally spots in on the corrugated rooftop of a car port! Chris has his camera ready but I am looking through my binoculars. I get a quick look, then raise my camera and the bird ducks down and disappears from view! No picture for me! But Chris kindly lets me use his.
This is the Harris’s sparrow seen by Chris and I and many others near Himmel Park in Tucson on December 29, 2013. It is a first winter sparrows and does not show the dark throat or black and gray feathers seen in my photos of adult breeding birds at the top and bottom of this post. I took those photos in Oklahoma back in 2010 while visiting T.R. Ryan. That was the only other time I have seen this species of sparrow. This bird was hanging out with a mixed flock of House sparrows and White-crowned sparrows. At first glance it could easily be mistaken for one of them, but note the pinkish conical beak and the warm brown cheek of this bird. It is also larger and longer-tailed than either of those species. Still, I am not sure I would have realized what I was looking at if Andrew Core had not seen it first and alerted the rest of us, so Thank You Andrew! This is a First of the Year for my 2013 Year List and a new species for my Arizona Life List but for Chris Rohrer it is a Life Bird! congratulations Chris! What a way to wrap up the year!
Happy New Year Everyone!
Note: Today’s post is a mixture of my photos and Chris Rohrer’s photos. I am hoping to get more of my photos processed and posted soon, hopefully before I move and get out of sync once again!