Wild West Birding in Arizona – Part 3

April 27 – We left Sierra Vista this morning and made our way west to the lovely Sonoita Grasslands. Skies were blue and winds were next to nothing which was a nice change after the last couple of days. The grasslands were alive with sparrows, and we saw several Grasshopper Sparrows very well, along with Brewer’s, Savannah, Black-throated and Lark sparrows. A Loggerhead Shrike was seen in the distance, and overhead we had good looks at several Swainson’s Hawks as they lazily circled. Groups of Violet-green Swallows were moving low across the grasslands, some offering good views, showing their telltale white rump patches. Best catch in the grasslands however, was a Scaled Quail that scrambled from one clump of grass to the next as 9 onlookers admired.

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Light morph adult Swainson’s Hawk over Sonoita Grasslands near Sierra Vista, AZ. April 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

Next stop on our agenda was a cafe in Patagonia where we had a ‘comfort break’ and picked up coffees to go. We then sat under the shade at the famous Paton’s feeders where dozens of birds came in to visit seed feeders and hummingbird feeders. The star attraction here, a Violet-crowned Hummingbird didn’t take too long to appear and we all had great views of this rare hummer. Also at the feeders were dazzling birds like Lazuli Bunting, Black-headed Grosbeak, White-breasted Nuthatch and Green-tailed Towhee. In the sky, an immature Gray Hawk sailed by, scattering the feeder birds in all directions.

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Violet-crowned Hummingbird. Patagonia, AZ. April 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

After a relaxing hour at the Paton’s we had lunch in town, and had a little time to roam around and check out the local museum and art galleries. A nice Zone-tailed Hawk sailed over the main street of this ‘one horse Western town’ before we headed off to the Patagonia Sonoita Ck Preserve nearby. We spent a couple of hours exploring the riparian habitat here, with 180 year old giant Fremont Cottonwoods towering above us. Even though it was the middle of the afternoon there were a few good birds to be seen here. We saw a couple of lovely Summer Tanagers, as well as the first Thick-billed Kingbirds of the trip. The kingbird is a rare breeding bird in the USA, barely entering the country from Mexico. We carried on to our resort in Rio Rico, arriving just after 5 pm.

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Northern Cardinal. Patagonia, AZ,. April 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

April 28 – Before breakfast we ventured into the lovely hills west of Nogales, to Pena Blanca Lake. The grassy foothills and rocky outcroppings bathed in early morning sun was quite dazzling. Along the way we picked up our first American Kestrels of the trip along the telephone wires. Once at the lake we scanned the glassy water for Least Grebe, but couldn’t spot any. Perhaps they were hiding in the marsh or in one of the tiny coves on the lake. There were Ruddy Ducks and a single Pied-billed Grebe here, as well as a pair of ‘Mexican’ Mallard types. The male of the pair looked like a hybrid ‘Mexican’ Duck X Mallard to me. The bushes were full of migrants with MacGillivrays, Wilson’s, Orange-crowned, Yellow, Townsend’s and Black-throated Gray warblers, Hammond’s Flycatchers and the like. I was quite surprised to see a pygmy-owl here, being mobbed by all sorts of birds. I never got to see the owl, except in flight, but looking at ebird I guess it’s more likely it was a Northern than a Ferruginous, even though the time of year and habitat was odd for Northern Pygmy-Owl. Included in the mobbing group was Ash-throated Flycatcher and a nice male Costa’s Hummingbird. A Montezuma Quail called several times from a distant hillside and we had great looks at a Canyon Wren that was singing from the top of an outhouse. Surprisingly, the wren had a beakful of food and entered the mens room where it must have hidden its nest.

As we ate breakfast at Rio Rico, we were interrupted by the sighting of a Greater Roadrunner right outside the dining room. The silly bird was perched atop a lamp calling away in the morning sun. We spent the rest of the day exploring Madera Canyon, where a rather long and steep hike didn’t produce the much sought-after Elegant Trogon. To make matters even worse, one fellow coming down the trail exclaimed he had seen one and heard two more. We went to the exact spot he described and found nothing. The walk wasn’t a loss though, as we had quite a few nice birds along the way, including Hermit Thrush, Plumbeous Vireo, Painted Redstart, Sharp-shinned Hawk, and a lovely Red-faced Warbler. At the Kubo Cabins we watched the feeders for a while, adding Magnificent, Broad-billed, Black-chinned, and Costa’s hummingbird, Hepatic Tanager, Bridled Titmouse, Mexican Jay and Grace’s Warbler to the list. A tom male Wild Turkey strutted his stuff on the road, then headed over to the vehicles in the parking area where he soon saw his reflection in one of the shiny cars with a Colorado license plate. The turkey began vigorously pecking the car, with each peck bringing a loud ‘clank’ sound. We were chuckling away at the situation when the owner of the car came dashing out clapping his hands and chased the turkey away. He didn’t chase it far, in fact, the bird just moved over to my van and began attacking the chrome bumper! To finish off the day we birded Proctor Road with high hopes of Black-capped Gnatcatcher. No luck with that rarity, but we did get our first trip Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.  On our way out of Madera Canyon we came to a screeching halt to watch a big Gila Monster cross the road in front of us, only the second I’ve ever seen.

Chris Charlesworth

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