Friday 4 March 2016

Arizona in Winter - Day 1

Day 1 – Phoenix to Tuscon 

I arrived into Phoenix from Los Angeles at about 8.30am, and with this being a domestic arrivaI I was in my hire car half an hour later. I had booked this in advance, and being all signed-up with Avis meant I took the ten minute airport shuttle to the rental car centre, saw my name on a screen with the bay number, got straight in the car and drove off. A guy scanned a barcode on my windscreen on the way out but there was no paperwork whatsoever, no attempt to sell me upgraded insurance, damage waivers or anything like that. This is in stark contrast to Europe where getting hold of car seems to take ages every time, and where your prepaid costs seem only to be a fraction of the eventual bill sometimes. I mention it only as a way to spend more time birding, speaking of which... 

Ferruginous Hawk

South from Phoenix I drove through Arizona City and out onto the Santa Cruz Flats, which took about an hour. My main targets here were various Thrashers, as well as a group of Mountain Plover that had been wintering at a Sod Farm and been seen regularly. Naturally they were nowhere to be found, however an also-regular Sprague's Pipit was in some grassy fields just east of here, as were four Burrowing Owls. I spent the rest of the morning driving around the dirt roads ticking off various species as I came across them. Curve-billed Thrasher was pretty common, as was Loggerhead Shrike. Fields with short grass typically had American Pipits and Killdeer on them, and Horned Lark and Lark Buntings formed large flocks. Smaller groups of White-crowned Sparrow were common in roadside bushes, and Gila Woodpeckers were in the bare short trees. I found the occasional Cactus Wren in drier non-farmed habitat. The dominant raptor was Red-tailed Hawk, however further east towards the I10 I picked up three Crested Caracara near some flooded fields, a Ferruginous Hawk and a Black Hawk.

Male and female Vermilion Flycatchers
With new species being harder to come across, mid-afternoon I drove to Catalina State Park, principally in search of the wintering Rufous-backed Robin, but also for a change of habitat. This is rocky sauguaro hillsides, with a river bordered by various scrub and small trees, and was excellent. There was a $7 entrance fee, but this was worth it immediately with a point blank male Vermilion Flycatcher basically in the parking area. I found my first Ladder-backed Woodpecker here, as well as both Phainopepla and Phyrruloxia, all within fifty yards of the trailhead. Happily I also found the Robin, not in its favourite tree but feeding in the riverbed. A cautious approach got me really close as it came to the water for a drink - I would have been happy to merely get a glimpse of it! Who would thought that I would start twitching in America? Don't answer that...

At this point I became aware of a man watching me. A man with "Man of Faith" written on his T-shirt. A sense of overwhelming dread immediately overcame me. Sure enough, after a bit of polite banter came the expected question. 

"Do you believe in Jesus?"
"Well, he's real." (this said wistfully with a gentle shake of the head, as if he could hardly believe it himself)

You can probably guess how the conversation went, right up to the point where I flatly asked him to stop talking about Jesus and leave me alone, but it never ceases to amaze me how these types feel it is their (god-given, ha ha) duty to try and convert every living person they see. Had I been wearing a turban he would probably still have tried. Anyhow, the usual patter about how once he had not believed blah blah, but that it had taken a sign and so on. A sign which I totally forgot as soon as he mentioned it, so it can't have been that meaningful. On and on it went, past the point where I said I loathed all forms of organised religion, past the point where I mentioned scientific fact, until we got to the "go away" moment above. This did actually work, but not before a parting shot about how I'll be all alone when I die. Utterly fed up by now, naturally I said that would be preferable to being with a bunch of people like him, and this is what finally sent him on his way, surprised perhaps that in America somebody could be so rude, as generally Americans are amongst the nicest most pleasant people on earth. When they say "Have a nice day" or ask you how you are I believe that they genuinely mean it and are interested in the answer. In the same way that I genuinely don't believe in Jesus, difficult though that is to comprehend. Anyway, I went down as a hateful foreign aetheist but I did get to carry on birding unmolested for the rest of the afternoon.

Although I would have liked to have explored the area more, my itinerary waits for no man, and so I went to Sweetwater Preserve for the final hour of daylight. Some smart Cinnamon Teal were here, but the real stars of the show were the hundreds of Red-winged Blackbirds performing their pre-roost rituals. The males would fly in and perch on an exposed reed before displaying – opening the wings, flexing the shoulders to reveal the spectacular colour patches whilst calling loudly – a trilling kind of buzz. In lovely light this was an excellent way to end my first day.


  1. Fantastic photos and report as aways Jono. Arizona is high on my bucket list and looks worth even being god-bothered for.

    1. Cheers J, agreed. Even the god-bothering did not really detract from a wonderful break. I have three more days coming up to bore you senseless with followed by Athens. Hoping to visit that place called Wanstead soon.

  2. I'm glad I gave up twitching long ago because that thrush would have me booking flights. Excellent pictures as always and I'll look forward to the remaining posts.


    1. Hi Mike, they're nearly done, quite how I have no idea. I just have to do the trip list and then sprinkle photos liberally. Nearly there!