Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Birding in Arizona Part I

Spring is here! As I look out upon the snow, I think back to just a few months ago and the warm temperatures in Arizona: swimming in the heated outdoor pool, walking Maggie in the mornings to the sound of the singing birds, walking to restaurants instead of bundling into a cold car and driving. Oh, if only spring weren’t so rambunctious and disorderly in Pennsylvania!

But speaking of birdsong…. Our first morning in Green Valley, AZ, I took Maggie for a walk through the community that was our temporary home. Many House Finches and Cardinals flew out of the pomegranate as we strolled by, the Cactus Wrens chattered their scolding cries and the Curve-billed Thrashers hopped from branch to feeders in the condo patios. That first morning brought many familiar songs, but even more that were unfamiliar to us. At one point, Maggie stopped to sniff some strange new smells and I stood listening. There was a very soft “who cooks for you” call. I was amazed, thinking perhaps Arizona had a small version of the Barred Owl there. But try as I might, I could not locate any owls. After checking my books and my Palm One National Geographic bird program, I discovered that it wasn’t an owl at all, but a White-winged Dove. But a few nights later, I heard a very soft “who-who-who” call, and this time it was an owl—Great-horned! I learned from neighbors that a pair had been nesting in the condo neighborhood for years.

One condo had several hummingbird feeders and we were able to watch many Anna’s Hummingbirds—that prompted us to head out and buy a feeder of our own to hang. (Recipe for hummer juice: 1 part sugar to 4 parts water...and do NOT add any food coloring, which is detrimental to their health--the birds will find it without that.) We had Broad-billed, Anna’s and even Costa’s visiting, and the tiny Verdins were also attracted to the hum-juice. And we bought a cheap $5 plastic feeder for the seed-eaters: House Finches, Lesser Goldfinches, Cactus Wrens, Gila Woodpeckers, to name a few.

One thing I learned in my travels is that if you want to find birds, but aren’t a very good birder (that’s me!), hook up with the local chapter of the Audubon Society and sign onto the state online birding email list. A few months before our trip, I joined the Arizona-New Mexico birding list, Birdwg05. By reading their discussions, rare bird alerts, field trip reports and locations, I had a leg up on planning our birding excursions. And we connected with the Tucson Audubon Society and attended many of their field trips. Their trip leaders are wonderful birders and all were eager to share their knowledge of the birds.

Our first field trip with TAS was at Sweetwater Wetlands in Tucson. A water reclamation area, this birds’ oasis in the city is a wonderful place to bird and we returned several times on our own. The trip leader, Cynthia Barstad, handed out a checklist of the birds that we might encounter there in winter which included a map of the wetlands and a resource list. We saw many Yellow-rumped Warblers at Sweetwater and most other birding areas, but during this and our other visits there, we also found a pair of nesting Harris’s Hawks, a covey of Gambel’s Quails, Abert’s Towhees, Northern Pintails, Marsh Wrens, Sora, Cinnamon Teal, Pied-billed grebes, Great-tailed Grackles, Black-crowned Night Heron, Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Plumbeous Vireo, Ruddy Ducks and so many more. What a wonderful “first time out” walk! I think we added about 25 birds to our life lists that first field trip.

Santa Rita Mountains and Elephant Head

from Madera Canyon entrance

A few days later we were on our own for our first visit to Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains. Now, if you want a combination of good hiking, excellent birding, wildflowers, trees and wildlife, this is the place to go. We returned there many times: hiking the trails where we saw a bobcat up close and mountain lion tracks; sitting at the Santa Rita Lodge feeders to watch the Acorn Woodpeckers, various juncos and Wild Turkeys; standing at Madera Kubo where we found Magnificent, Anna’s, Blue-throated, Rufous and Broad-billed Hummingbirds, Hepatic Tanagers, Painted Redstart, and of course, the ubiquitous Acorn Woodpeckers; magnificent views and close-ups for photography; and the Amphitheater where we found our first Townsend’s Warblers.

The next day we headed to Agua Caliente Park for their weekly nature walk. Another gem at the edge of Tucson, this is where I saw my first Bewick’s Wrens. Notice the odd partially webbed feet of this Coot.

And we continued our nature observations later at Saguaro National Park East: Gilded Flickers were a delight to see as they flashed from one cactus to another. The "forest" of cacti was an astonishing sight.

Fishhook Barrel

Not only the saguaros, but also fishhook barrels, Opuntias, chollas and more.

Fishhook Barrel amidst Opuntis

On Thursday, January 8th, we drove south to Kino Springs, a golf course with a catch-water pond where we found our first Vermilion Flycatchers

and Say’s Phoebes. At the pond we found another Cinnamon Teal sparkling in the morning sunlight.

And on the 9th

we returned to Saguaro National Park East for a field trip led by park volunteers.

That leads us to Saturday, January 10th, and the TAS field trip to Chino Canyon. The Test of the Knee Trip and Elephant Head…… be continued.

On to the subject of Pennsylvania Wildflowers! Charlie and I went up to the Tanbark Trail in the Allegheny National Forest last week and I found trailing arbutus in bloom. Such a dainty flower it is. Delicate pink blossoms with a cotton-candy-sweet fragrance, it blooms as early as coltsfoot and hints at springtime to come.