Sunday, August 30, 2015

Facing the Inevitable

Only days would pass before I'd find myself back in Madera Canyon. It was inevitable. It has been a very active summer for birders here in Southern Arizona.  Many are trying to find some rather difficult birds in our very trying Arizona heat.  Mix it up with some crazy monsoon weather along with our active wildlife and as they are's a vacation they won't forget anytime soon:) So as Kathleen and Zeke left for our southern mountains, young birders Walker and Dalton arrived to find several lifers of their own. 

Lesser Goldfinch-female
One of the birds on Walker's list included the Plain-capped Starthroat.  This meant sitting at the feeders for a longer period of time.  It's amazing how one day, the bird would show up without any hestitation.  But it wasn't meant to be for Walker or Dalton.  After several hours of sitting, we abandoned the feeders only to have missed the bird by 20 minutes after we left! That stung so bad. We went back and sat for a couple more hours. NADA. The Starthroat never showed up again and Walker would dip on both days for the Starthroat.  We all have to have a Nemesis bird:)  It just makes the eventual sighting even sweeter and more special. 

male Broad-billed Hummingbird
 I have certainly mellowed out a lot over the past year on this birding thing.  I have learned to just enjoy what shows up.  Walker reminds me of what it's like to have that youthful energy.  I'm not by any means old but I knew we had our work cut out for us.  This young man was going to bird hard and I mentally tried to prepare myself for the trek ahead. Normally I don't do long hikes in this crazy heat.   But he could not afford anymore dips after the Starthroat mishap.  And so it would happen as it has for so many birders before us......a trip to the mysterious and sometimes dangerous California Gulch.  

Black-headed Grosbeak-male
 As we left the feeder birding behind, we began our long trek past the Peña Blanca Lake area and headed onto a decently maintained dirt road towards the ghost town of Ruby.  The California Gulch was just beyond this fascinating town. It has a very dark past. Last year, I went camping with Gordon at Ruby.  We had a blast but we also knew that the border was only minutes from our location.  There was a moment when we heard what we thought was a bird, but it turned out that it was someone from the Mexican side communicating something. Mexico is a great place but the border is known for drug and human trafficking....especially in that spot.  So we headed back to our camp. 

male Brown-headed Cowbird
 The heat and humidity during the day increased.  Monsoon storms seemed to be popping up and dotting the skies. 

Whiskered screech-owl
From a distant hill, we could see the flash of lighting followed by the booms of thunder. Please be nice Mother Nature!  The initial cracking sound silenced the ongoing cicada hum.  Eventually we reached the general California Gulch area, but where exactly were the Five-striped Sparrows and Buff-collared Nightjars found? No internet.  No GPS.  Nothing. So we birded a stretch of the road with some good finds.  Walker found his first Pacific-slope Flycatcher, but it wasn't one of the target birds.  He's moving to Idaho and figured he'd find this bird there.  It wasn't the Nightjar nor the Sparrow.  

White-winged Dove
 On our way into the vast expanse known as "the Gulch", we spotted at least 3 Five-striped Sparrows but they took off quickly and Walker wasn't able to get a picture or good ID of the bird.  We had to continue on.  This bird was a MUST!

Overlooking the California Gulch
Along the way, I was thrilled to find lots of our common birds jumping around with juveniles in the desert scrub.  There was evidence that nesting had been a success for several species!

Bewick's Wren
 But then something incredible would happen.  I spied a WILD Desert Tortoise in the road.  My only lifer for the day!  And it was a GOOD one!  This species is threatened and in decline due to human involvement.  

When I spot one of these rare beauties, I document the time and place with a photo.  I make sure that they are safely off the road before leaving the scene. And that means just watching to make sure it crosses.  I do not carry them and as you'll find out there's a reason why. This tortoise was on a very quiet road and was safe from getting hit by a car. 

the ancient Desert Tortoise
 Here's some stuff I learned a couple years ago about finding turtles or tortoises in the desert and grassland areas. Never pick a tortoise up as it will void.  This will cause dehydration and possible death.  If the road is active, you obviously might need to move it.  Arizona Game and Fish recommends picking up the tortoise slightly off the ground(not high) and taking it safely to the other side of the road. Recent estimates indicate that there are about 100,000 individual desert tortoises remaining in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts.  As late as the 1950's the desert tortoise population averaged 200 adults per square mile. More recent studies show the level is now between 5-60 adults per square mile. This tortoise is labeled "Threatened".  One level above the "Endangered" category. 

Five-striped Sparrow
 Eventually we met up with several other birders who were also on the same mission. Together we joined forces and made it all happen.  The Buff-collared Nightjar and Five-striped Sparrows were realized.  Walker and Dalton got their hard earned lifers. And I had a bat fly into my head.  That was a first. I think I had a huge bug on my hat.

But the real story isn't about any of us.  It's about the father/son team we met.  Enter James and Monroe McKay.  James, who is recently retired, is traveling around the ABA world with his 87 year old father.  Together they are accomplishing amazing things.  Their one rule?  Father and son must BOTH see or hear the bird before they can count it.  Night birding operates primarily with the use of our ears. If we are lucky, we will just see the shadow of the bird fly around us. If we can ID the call, we can count the bird. Well, his father could not hear the soft "laughing" of the nearby Elf Owls.  Birders united to help both these men see the owl. 

Here are some hardcore birders. From left to right, James and Monroe McKay and Walker and Dalton Noe

And within moments, we had the world's tiniest owl pass through the mesquite tree next to us where it was hanging out with some juveniles on a branch. Mission accomplished.  They moved on their way until their "laughter" disappeared further down into the canyon. While we waited for the night sky, I learned much about their wonderful adventures across the country. It is an amazing accomplishment! 

Elf Owl
 After hearing the Buff-collared Nightjar, we all drove back together in a caravan safely passing through the network of dirt roads until we reached the interstate. Border Patrol was active that night.  Several bug people were out collecting. And Common Poorwills flew around our vehicle.  Once we entered back into the Rio Rico area, Walker was able to contact his family and let them know we were okay. On MY way home, I had a crazy thing happen. A meteorite fragment flared across the front of my windshield and almost hit my car on the interstate!  Maybe the hit from the bat messed up my head. But seriously, it was a bit scary! Anyhow,what an amazingly difficult and hot day out in our beautiful desert.  There is no place like our wild Southern Arizona on this planet. The Sonoran Desert is a thing of wonder.  Scary sometimes.  But that's what makes it so amazing.  

 I wish Walker and Dalton luck on their journey ahead.  Sure Idaho won't have all those Mexican vagrants, but Arizona isn't that far away.  Plus, think about all the amazing adventures you'll have around that state.  Idaho sounds like a beautiful place to explore. And full of amazing finds!  Happy trails ahead for all!

The Glendale Recharge Ponds-normally it's a brutal survey of shorebirds.  The shorebirds are great, but the intense heat makes it a killer.  Bring plenty of water out to this area. And your scope!!  It's your one stop shopping center for shorebirds in Arizona:)  This place actually was quite beautiful as we went to find the Sabine's Gull around sunset. 
On a final note, since we are heading into September in a few days, my North American bird tally is at 493 for the year.  My latest addition is the Sabine's Gull.  There are a few that are currently migrating through the state of Arizona thanks in part to the active monsoon weather patterns here this year.  I will say this about August.  It has been a long and tough month for me as a birder.  My energy levels are waaaaay down now that work is here again.  Plus the heat makes everything so much more difficult.  In the days ahead, we will be exploring a lot more of the wild wild west. I am looking forward to these treks with great anticipation. Not only will the birds be great, if we find them, but the landscape and temps alone will make the trekking so much more fun.  And perhaps we'll meet a fellow blogger or two along the way:)  Stay tuned for more....
For more about birds check out Wild Bird Wednesday(link on the left side top) and Anni's I'd-Rather-B-Birdin'


  1. Awesome report and post, Chris! I enjoyed the birds photos and the tortoise! Congrats on your sightings. Happy Birding!

  2. Oh Chris... Such wonderful photos of this wild place! I love the one that looks like the hill is on fire. Magical and mysterious! I will send this post to a friend of mine we call "the Turtle Whisperer" she has saved many from getting crushed on the roads nearby. Last one was a very large snapper she managed to get into a milk crate and move it to safety.

  3. Excellent post, with a little tortoise lagniappe.

  4. Wonderful post Chris and such great sightings and photos :) Must be fun and rewarding to meet up with fellow bloggers and go out birding. Well done on the tortoise sighting :) Look forward to more of your treks and adventures :)

  5. We've had Sabine Gulls reported here in our area of Texas, but I haven't seen 'em yet.

    Love the night owl shot and the whiskered owl in the burr of the tree.

    Oh, and that hummingbird is stunning.

    Yep, AZ is a fabulous birding place. And Madera Canyon is gorgeous.

    Thanks for sharing this link this week at I'd Rather B Birdin'

  6. Gosh Chris you've just finished one trek and are already gearing up for the next :) excellent post as always, I didn't know that about tortoises, I enjoy that I learn something each time I visit here!

  7. The intrepid birder's been at it again! Sometimes I worry that you push yourself too hard, Chris. But then I see your results and understand why.

    I shall bear your tortoise warning in mind. Not sure if it applies to more temperate climates, but I'll check it out.

    My congratulations on the Elf Owl image. OK, so it might not be the best image in the world, but getting any image of that bird in those conditions looks as if it was a major achievement.

    Best wishes to you both - - - - Richard

  8. Your travels, and even with friends, in search of interesting birds are admirable. There are always interesting information and photos. Today, I really like the owl in a hollow. Regards

  9. Thank you so much, Chris for telling me that my Cooper's Hawks might return next year. Something I can look hopefully for! And love this post....just sorry your friend didn't see his starthroat! The elf owl was magical. I would LOVE to see or hear one! That father-son team was a nice pair to run into, and your friends had youthful enthusiasm! Beautiful sunset photos! Just glorious scenery. What, no photo of the meteorite fragment?:-) Just kidding! I am so glad it missed your bizarre!

  10. I love reading about your adventures. You sure have seen a LOT of birds this year already. Amazing father and son team! I wonder if I will still be birding when I'm 87.

  11. wow, such a nice set of beautiful birds along with great nature. Can´t be better. :)

  12. Some birds are just not meant to be - the number of times I have dipped out on Bearded Tit make me want to weep!!

    Cheers - Stewart M - Melbourne

  13. What an amazing adventure! And interesting that some of the most amazing things weren't about birds - a lesson to all birders out there :D Have a great week ahead!

  14. Well, you sure do get around! It was nice you were able to be helpful to those birders. When I come back be prepared to help me find that elusive 5-striped sparrow! I love that second to the last picture of the sunset and the rocky cliff! It's just beautiful.


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