After striking out on finding the Red-breasted Sapsucker in Madera Canyon on November 3rd, Chris Rohrer and I were right back at it in less than a week. Chris had Friday off from work and we jumped in my car and headed south. Though Madera was the ultimate goal, we stopped along the way at Sahuarita Lake in Rancho Sahuarita where a pair of Red-breasted mergansers were reportedly being seen. While I have seen Red-breasted mergansers on the east coast, they would be my first sighting of this species in Arizona IF we could find them. One had been seen previously at Kennedy Lake on the southwest side of Tucson and Chris had already seen it there, but my attempts to find the bird in the same location came up short. I still needed this bird.
Sahuarita Lake is surrounded by a paved walking path. Though the water is an unnatural blue due to a chemical they add to kill mosquitoes and algae it still is a pretty spot with the Santa Rita Mountains towering like a thin blue cutout in the background. I parked the car and Chris and I started walking with the sun behind our backs. It wasn’t long before we sighted the Western Grebe that was also reported here.
We only heard a few birds as we walked along the trail but I was surprised to see a couple of Turkey Vultures circling overhead. A few yellow-rumped warblers flitted in the trees that lined the path and we even found a Ruby-crowned Kinglet near the restrooms! Though I scanned the lake with my bins I did not see anything remotely duck-like on the water until we got closer to the far end of the lake. Finally we found the mergansers at the far end close to the shore and in some kind of slime that slicked their shaggy crest down when they came up after a dive. As we walked slowly closer, they quickly slipped away. Once out in open water again the fresh water rinsed the muck off and they took on the shaggy-crest look once again.
Red-breasted mergansers are ocean going birds and are rarely found inland. The Red-breasted merganser has a longer and thinner bill than the Common merganser, which is frequently seen inland. The Common Merganser female looks similar, but has a shorter bill with a white throat and greater contrast between the reddish-brown head and neck and the white breast. Non-breeding males look very similar to females but according to my Sibley’s Bird Guide males are in breeding plumage from November to May.
After a quick stop to pick up some lunch Chris and I headed for Madera Canyon. While we counted birds along White House Canyon road like we always do on our way into the canyon, we did not linger. We headed straight for the White House picnic area to find our bird. As we drove up into the canyon I was surprised at how many cars were on the road. I had never seen so many cars here! But, word was out about the Red-breast Sapsucker and an even rarer bird had been sighted far up the canyon on one of the trails. Some one had seen an Eared Quetzal! Birders were coming from far and wide to get these species on their Life Lists! Chris and I did not have time or the gear we needed to hike 2 miles up the mountain for the chance of seeing the quetzal, so we headed straight for the picnic area. It wasn’t hard to find the bird, there were already other birders there with bins and cameras. We quickly parked the car and got out.
The birders who were already there were just leaving but told us the spasucker kept returning to an alligator juniper just past a picnic table. Chris and I listened for its call and just as another group of birders joined us the sapsucker flew in! we all sat ourselves down quietly and started snapping pictures! This was a Life Bird for me and I snapped and snapped and snapped away!
The whole time we sat there and watched the bird no one talked. When they finally did talk, every one kept their voices to a whisper. It was a magical moment for me. Here was yet another bird I never thought I would see! While I have see Red-naped sapsuckers, Yellow-bellied sapsuckers and Williamson’s sapsuckers, this bird seemed out of my reach as it does not reside in Arizona, but only rarely passes through on migration from the Pacific Northwest! With this sighting of the Red-breasted Sapsucker I now have all my North American sapsuckers on my Life List!
Of course, we saw many of the usual winter birds on this day, including Mexican Jays, Acorn woodpeckers, Dark-eyed juncos and the always adorable Bridled Titmouse!
- What’s That in the Grass –part one of this story.