Monday, April 28, 2014

April Weekend in Tucson (Part 1)

Chasing some potential ABA birds near Tucson

For once my business life and my birding life came together nicely this weekend when a Board meeting in Phoenix on Thursday gave me the opportunity to do a couple of days birding in SE Arizona over the weekend (schedules never work out this well).

4am on Friday morning and I was up and on my way from Phoenix to Tucson with no plans but birding for the next few days.  By 6:30am I'd picked up long-time birding friend Rich Hoyer at his house in Tucson and we were soon on our way to chase down some special birds in the canyons South of the city.  I was very excited to get back to bird some sites I hadn't visited in ten years and had a couple of target birds I really wanted to get.

First stop was Florida Canyon (pronounced Flor-ee-da) and we went straight up to the canyon proper passing quickly through desert habitat that had yielded a lot of life birds for me the first time I came here in 1993.  No time for thorough birding today though as we had two target birds that I really wanted to see and the first of them, Rufous-capped Warbler, had been seen recently up in the canyon. So we pushed on past Rufous-winged and Rufous-crowned Sparrows, Phainopeplas, Lucy's Warblers and other desert birds until we got to the parking lot and started our hike.

Hutton's Vireo - one of five species of vireo we saw to heard over the weekend
(the others being Cassin's, Plumbeous, Bell's and 'Western' Warbling)
Florida Canyon is a very special place with rough trails winding up through dense scrub along a tiny stream that surfaces then vanishes many times in the space of a mile or so.  The canyon is narrow and the scrub-covered canyon sides are relatively steep.  Perfect habitat for the warbler which likes both the steep scrubby slopes and permanent water nearby.

The canyon was really birdy this morning and was we picked our way up we saw or heard a lot of birds.  Migrant flycatchers were very much in evidence with Pacific Slope, Dusky and Hammond's all vocalizing along with resident Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, Dusky-capped and Ash-throated Flycatchers.  There were also five species of wren (Rock, Canyon, House, Bewicks's and Cactus), lots of warblers, tanagers, orioles, etc., and even a fly-over migrant Townsend's Solitaire.  It would have been a wonderful morning of birding even without the target birds, but we were focussed and kept pushing up the canyon with our goal in mind.

Eventually, after passing through the area where the birds had most recently been seen (the lower territory?) we heard a really promising chip note and, after a bit of urgent scanning, found a pair of Rufous-capped Warblers on the slope across the stream.  They really are quite spiffy little birds and we watched them for 10 minutes as they flitted around in the dense scrub.  There are perhaps three pairs in the canyon, and perhaps a few other birds (pairs) in a couple of other canyons scattered across S.E.Arizona, and that is the total US population, definitely a scarce bird in the US.  Target number one down and so off again to search for the bird that I most wanted for the weekend.

Rufous-capped Warbler.  The first one I'd seen North of the Mexican border.
So after stopping to chat with Ken and Suzy Feustel (friends from Long Island who we bumped into in the parking lot), next stop was a stakeout near Tubac where a Sinaloa Wren had been regularly seen in recent weeks along a pretty strip of riparian woodland along the San Pedro River.  I'd watched daily eBird rare bird reports on this species all Winter and I really wanted to see this bird (like last month's LaSagra's Flycatcher which lured me to Florida).  We had good directions and quickly found "the spot" next to the power-cut where the bird was apparently regularly seen.  It was supposed to be a "gimme" and we were hoping for a quick sighting and actually started making plans for what to do next.  Of course, needless to say nearly three hours later we were still staring into the leaf-litter and had seen nothing more promising than a Bewick's Wren.  Oh well, time for Plan B.

So an hour or so of driving later we were handing our ID's the the uniformed soldier at the gate of Fort Huachuca (US Citizens only!) and then wended our way through the fort to spot where a second Sinaloa Wren had been heard, but not seen, recently.  When we arrived at the spot the news was not good; two birders from Nebraska were staking out the site and hadn't seen the bird in an hour or so.  Still, not being people to stand around and wait, Rich and I split up and started working downstream trying to find the bird for ourselves and, not five minutes later, Rich yelled that he had the bird.

Rushing over I followed directions and saw a small brown shape working through dense underbrush towards the stream.  I had a choice at this moment, bins or camera?  I chose bins and got a great look as the bird popped out into the open.  I also really regretted the choice as, by the time I got my camera ready, the bird was back in the dense scrub and, despite an hour of trying and plenty of glimpses of the bird, I never did get a clear photo.

Two of the worst photos of Sinaloa Wren ever published - expert photographer
I am not ....

Luckily, Rich was luckier (or more skilled) with his point-and-shoot camera and got at least one decent shot.  I was thrilled either way though having got the bird I really wanted for the weekend (plus a real rarity in the US, and a second ABA bird).  Happy but exhausted we raced back to Tucson where I dropped Rich off and headed to my hotel to grab a few hours sleep before an early start to chase a Painted Redstart that had been found that day in another part of the state.  Last bird of the day for me was a Common Poorwill at dusk at my hotel (the J.W.Marriott at Starr Pass).  Perfect end to a very good day of birding.

Sinaloa Wren - Photo: Rich Hoyer (Used with Permission)
As a postscript, a funny thing happened while I was watching the wren that day.  After finally getting some (not so amazing) photos I stepped back to take a break and felt my phone buzzing in my pocket.  It was Corey Finger texting me saying "Ptarmigan on Sunday?" which truly confused me.  My Facebook status said I was in Phoenix but did he think I was in Colorado?  Had he sent a text to the wrong person?  After a few minutes I texted back that I had plans to look for Slate-throated Redstart on Sunday, which I thought would clear up the confusion.  In response Corey texted "Boo" and now I was really confused.  I asked where he was to be looking for Ptarmigan ... Colorado?  And he told me that a Willow Ptarmigan had just been found in New York State ... only the second ever in the lower 48 (!) .  Ho hum ... can't get them all (the bird did not stick around to wait for me to come back) .... but you can read about Corey's adventure (complete with encounters with New York State Troopers) at 10,000 Birds here.

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