Sunday, January 24, 2016

White Winter Hymnal

The brisk cold winds of change came soon after my return to Arizona. One week after the warm border searches, it was time for some mountain fun. Winter had indeed arrived to Southern Arizona. 

the snowy Huachucas
With state birds in mind, I joined a walk I had been wanting to do for awhile in Sierra Vista. Last week it was the Streak-backed Oriole and today, I was hoping to find the secretive American Bittern at the Sierra Vista EOP(or Environmental Operations Park) It's a secured area with group lead access only on Sunday mornings. With the recent snowfall during the weekend, I couldn't resist the photography bit in both the Huachuca mountains and Cienagas Grasslands.  And this is where our story takes place today.

A Loggerhead Shrike at work.  It's Vole dinner
On our way through the gates, a participant in the group noticed a vole speared onto a branch.  It was evidence that the "Butcherbird" (aka Loggerhead Shrike) was nearby.  While the group examined the fresh kill, we tried locating the bird. No luck!  But as we left, we noticed that the vole was gone:)  

Loggerhead Shrike
Afterwards, I took a solitary walk on the snowy paths of Ramsey Canyon.  There, melting snow fell upon my head.  I was a tad wet when I left this winter wonderland.  BUT WOW!

My favorite tree in all of Arizona.  It's old and ancient.  Someday I'd like my ashes to be placed around this very large tree. I call it the Heart Tree.  It's at the center of Ramsey Canyon, one of my top ten favorite places in Arizona.
During my walk, I was surprised by how quiet the birds were.  I can only imagine how dangerous it might be as a small bird dodging the huge snow chunks falling from the trees. It was dangerous for people! I suppose it would be the equivalent to an aerial avalanche.  I made note and realized that most birds flew just below the snowline where they were active and feeding.

In the soft crunch of snow beneath my shoes, I watched a Coati run towards me on our now shared route.  We both stopped for a moment and watched each other before he turned off and headed towards the nearby abandoned cabin.

I very much like the cold.  I don't like the eternal gray skies that can sometimes come with the snow, but I do prefer the frosty temps over the hot sweltering ones of our summer months.

One path leads to another.  I stopped in the nearby grasslands and hiked some more.  Birds were present, but I was more interested in quiet reflection.  Things are changing.  I can sense it coming and I need to be ready for those changes.

Lesser Goldfinches mob the thistle feeder
"They" say change is good and inevitable. Sometimes it's about saying good-bye to the ritual and people involved around these loving spaces dedicated to birds and wildlife.  I sat at the now named Tucson Audubon's Paton Center for Hummingbirds alone.  Thankfully Tucson Audubon was able to purchase this home for current and future generations of birders.  It's a great spot for all kinds of birds and a traditional stop for many birders and tourists coming through the Patagonia area.  It's a piece of feathered folklore written in a sacred text for those who worship the bird.

The Violet-crowned Hummingbird-an established resident of Tucson Audubon's Paton's Center for Hummingbirds
Before Tucson took over, a guy by the name of Larry Morgan kept the feeders running for years after the homeowners, the Paton's, passed away.  You'd see him outside with his smiling face helping people spot their lifer Violet-crowned Hummingbird.  When Larry and his wife said they were leaving to begin a new chapter in their lives, I was both happy and sad. It wasn't quite the same without him there on this last visit.  It just proves once again how we all can make a difference for so many people. And how Larry has made a huge impact for thousands of birders across the world.  How can I write down this feeling in my Cheesehead lingo?  It's like having coffee cake with your friends on Saturday morning for many years and more Saturday morning get togethers.  You eat the coffee cake alone.  And it doesn't taste as good.  Anyhow, I'm going to miss Larry and my Patagonia routine.  He's one of the nicest people you'll ever meet! He's in Tucson now so hopefully we'll get to do some birding together now that he's closer:)

My reflections continued into the Ciénagas Grasslands near Empire Gulch where I walked alone against the biting wind. I strayed into the old abandoned buildings looking for owls and other goodies.  This is another top 10 favorite spot for me in Arizona.  There are 3 grassland sectors in this general region.....the San Rafael Grasslands, the Ciénagas Grasslands and Buenos Aires Grasslands.  ALL are spectacular!

The overall weekend was a lot of fun and full of quality alone time.  Every person has their favorite place to bird(or just visit!) While all birds are amazing, their locales are sometimes not:)  This weekend was about connecting with the places I love the most.

And as for my new state bird?  Yes, I achieved my goal.  I found that rare stinker of an American Bittern that has been hiding out for several months in Sierra Vista. The bird would have silently flown off had I not heard the rustle of reeds nearby. I was able to get everyone onto the bird before it disappeared into the far distance. I'd like to thank our group leader Bill Brown for the opportunity to bird this spot in depth.  He did an outstanding job with everyone involved. And it's always a plus working with people who are kind and friendly. Bill is as we say in Wisconsin "good people". Leading a bird tour isn't is as easy as it looks as I'd soon get to experience personally.  But that story is for next time. 

American Bittern in flight during our Sierra Vista EOP walk 
On a final note, one of the things I do with new birds is study them in various locations around the country.  The picture above is from the actual bird we saw.  It is countable. The one I studied in Utah, below, is not as it was in a large aviary.  I do hours of study on each new bird before trying to find them in the field.  And this is where I think aviaries are important as they can be a living classroom for birders and people interested in wildlife. I can read about birds and memorize their sounds, but understanding their movement and behaviors in a closed setting helps me "observe" better out in the field. 

American Bittern
From volunteer to participant to bird guide, my January continues in a most spectacular way. My quest within the state of Arizona for new state birds takes me north into unexplored territory. Stay tuned for more.....


  1. Well the year has started well for you Chris. That was a lovely trip you made that weekend and you managed to see the bird you came to see.

  2. Wonderful post Chris and the photos are amazing. Such beautiful and magical scenery. Glad you caught up with the Bittern. I love the Shrike though - never seen one over here but how I would love too. We sometimes call them the "butcher bird".

  3. So happy to hear that you're still enjoying your birding Chris. I had a similar experience with a Butcher bird 'victim' right here in my back garden.. spiked on a plant for later. It's a jungle out there :)

  4. Sunshine and snow together takes some beating, doesn't it Chris, particularly when there's mountains involved!

    That Coati is a beautiful creature. I'd love to see one in the wild. The Violet-crowned Hummingbird is amazing!

    A great post with super images.

  5. Beautiful series ;-)
    Céline & Philippe

  6. Sounds like a great weekend, and Bitterns are always special to see wherever they are.

  7. congrats on scoring another bird. the coati is so cool! beautiful vistas.

  8. Looks like you will be very busy this year.

  9. So glad you were successful with the bittern sighting! Very exciting! How neat to see the vole dinner waiting for the shrike to return! And the coati...I saw one in Texas once and it shocked me because I thought I was looking at a raccoon until it turned around and saw it's pointed nose! :-) Beautiful grasslands photos. Such wonderful places to bird here in AZ...especially for the hummers. Loved that violet crowned! Look forward to your next adventure!

  10. Hello Chris!:)A wonderful post, and your photos of the birds and Coatie are splendid.

  11. An American the desert chaparral....I would've never guessed.

    That evidence of the "Impaler" Shrike is an awesome find too.

  12. I wish I could be in your birding group. Spectacular pictures, congrats on the lifer. And thank you for the whole post, but especially the part about the aviaries ...that gives me something to think about ...

  13. I really like emotions of your photos. They are touching and they have perfect composition.

  14. Fantastic images, I loved seeing the birds, landscapes and coati!

  15. I love that picture of the snowy road curving away with the trees leaning in over it. Beautiful. Great picture of all of the goldfinches on the feeder too!

  16. Chris, I have to confess, that photo of Las Cienegas is my favorite. I love the subtle colors and the wide open expanse of it all. How I miss that place! You've been having quite a time, I see. Congrats on your American Bittern! Love that pic of your smiling face as well!


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