Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Big Dipper (1st installment of our Arizona trip journal)

Dip (v. int) – a birding term which means not seeing a targeted (usually uncommon) species. i.e. I dipped on the Rock Sandpiper at Playa del Rey.

Our hopes were high in adding heftily to our lifelist as we travelled to Southeast Arizona Saturday, August 11th. Both our guidebooks “Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona” by the Tucson Audubon Society and “A Birder’s Guide to Southeastern Arizona” by Richard Cachor Taylor” recommended that the best time to go birding in this region is in mid-August. That is when species diversity would be at its peak, both books stated.

With this in mind, we wasted no time exploring the vicinities of Madera Canyon – the first of three places that we planned to bird . Visions of rare sparrows and other Arizona specialties popping out of every bush and tree along the road danced in our minds. The road up the Sta. Rita mountains was still wet from a very recent downpour.

"The book says we should be seeing throngs of Cassin’s and Botteri’s Sparrows singing on the wire fences, right after a rainfall, " I told my wife. We passed about 10 miles of wire fences and saw a total of zero sparrows.

We did not stay long at the Proctor Road parking area, not wanting to pay $5 for less than an hour's stay. Besides, the fields around it are quite devoid of birdlife except for a solitary Say's Phoebe.

Up the Canyon, we visited the feeders at the Sta. Rita Lodge. Only Anna's and Black-chinned Hummingbirds are present (both common in southern California). House Finches, Lesser Goldfinches, White-winged Doves, Acorn Woodpeckers, White-breasted Nuthatches and Mexican Jays rounded up the total bird population of lodge's feeders.

The feeders at the two lodges further up the road (Madera Kubo and Chuparosa Inn) were even less exciting. We then drove to the picnic area at the end of the road. It seemed like there were more people than birds there. It's probably because it is a weekend we concluded.

Our first day certainly did not look very promising.

Sunday, we birded the canyon early in the morning. There were tons of Painted Redstarts at the picnic grounds. then we saw our first lifer - the Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher. Encouraged by this, we vowed to return in the afternoon. For now we have something to do that we would never want to miss. Wherever we go, we always make it a point to attend church services on a Sunday.

We attended Calvary Chapel of Sahuarita at 10 am, had lunch and rested for a few hours. In the afternoon, we lingered at the Proctor Road parking area where we got our second lifer - the exquisitely beautiful Varied Bunting! It was just too bad that it was quite a distance away and the light was becoming dark, that the picture I took was just so disappointingly trashy. The photo of the Western Wood Pewee singing not far from the bunting was even worse! Our second day at Madera Canyon was a bit uplifting.

We hoped Monday would be more promising without all the noisy picnickers disturbing the birds. We went straight to the end of the canyon road, where a trail leads up to Trogon country. We hiked about a mile, stopping every so often to watch the Painted Redstarts go about their business and the Bridled Titmice flit from tree to tree. A Hutton's Vireo gave me a nice pose. We met a birder who pointed out the Brown Creepers methodically work their way up the trunks of tall trees. 

At about 3/4 of a mile, as we were about to give up, a group of senior citizens came up and told us that they saw a bird that has a long tail and bright orangey belly. That's a trogon, we told them (they were not birders, and were just hiking the trails, they informed us). One of them gave us specific directions on where they saw our target bird of the trip. Giving us a cold bottle of water and a hearty wish of good luck, they bade us goodbye. Meticulously following the directions given us, we arrived at where the trogons (note the plural) are supposed to be displaying to curious passersby. Nothing. Nada. Zero.

Dejected, we trudged back. Why would a trogon show itself to non-birders and not to people who desire to enjoy and capture it's beauty, I kept murmuring to myself. When we returned that afternoon, we got caught in a torrential downpour. We stayed at the Proctor Road Parking area until the rain stopped. By then it was sunset and all the birds were gone. Day three was disappointing.

On our last day at Madera Canyon, we decided to give the Proctor Road one more try. We caught a glimpse of the Varied Buntings but again, they were too far off to even get a decent shot. A Blue Grosbeak made an appearance but what caught our attention were the Cardinals. First a young one sang vigorously on top of a tree. Then we were startled by a male Cardinal calling to its offspring just a few feet away from us.

Soon we were on the road to Sierra Vista. We stopped by the Kino Springs Golf Course where sightings of a Painted Bunting and a White-collared Seedeater were reported. Both species are extremely rare even here in Arizona. We stayed there for about 2 hours, just having a sandwich and a coke for lunch while patiently waiting for our quarries to appear. Once again, Nada. Zip. No-show.

We stopped at the Patagonia Roadside Rest hoping to see the Black-capped Gnatcatcher that was supposed to be nesting close the Shrine. You guessed it. Dipped again.

Day four was a big dipper day.

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