Saturday, 12 March 2016

Arizona in Winter - Day 2

Day 2 – Santa Rita mountains, Pena Blanca and Paton's Hummingbird Sanctuary

The Canyons of the Santa Rita mountains regularly feature in the top birding destinations in the state, specifically Florida Canyon and then the more extensive and much busier Madera Canyon. I started the day at the former, which took around an hour to get to from Tucson, and the final stretch of which is along unpaved roads which are in some places quite corrugated. I was the first on site and it was cold! Luckily having started my journey in Oslo (don't ask!) I just happened to have a warm fleecy jacket, gloves, and my trusty camo hat – I had not been expecting to use these but was able to dig them out and thus not die of exposure. 
Canyon Towhee
The Elegant Trogon that the previous day had been seen at the parking area wasn't being seen today, so I headed up the trail towards the Black-capped Gnatcatcher area near the large green water tank, passing my first Green-tailed Towhee on the way. You walk up the left hand side of the research station, then cross the creek, and then head up the other side of the creek. There were few birds moving, a Cardinal perhaps the only thing I saw. Although the sun has risen, it is still behind the mountains that the canyon ascends into, so it remains cold for some while – indeed I could see snow at higher elevations. Back alongside the research station lower down I spent some time trying and failing to get a Cactus Wren to do the decent thing, and jammed a Canyon Towhee and Black-chinned Sparrow in the process. A few more birders had arrived now, almost all of them from out of State and also after the Gnatcatchers. Together we combed up and down, and finally a couple of guys found a pair quite close to the cars. It took a while to nail the ID by getting a good look at the underside of the tail, the rest of the bird looks very similar at this time of year to the common Black-tailed Gnatcatcher

Ooooh, rare

Cactus Wren struggling with plant identification
With still no sign of the Trogon I headed back down the road towards Madera, stopping at an obvious corral on the left which had Black-throated Sparrows and more Canyon Towhees, but also a thousand million flies, give or take. Proceeding to Madera Canyon, which is a mere 15 minutes drive away, I passed several car parks before stopping just before Santa Rita Lodge. This is a gift shop devoted mostly to nature, and there are a mass of bird feeders set up, as well as chairs and benches for elderly birders. Or sleep-deprived ones like me. The Gnatcatcher-finders had also arrived and again proved their worth (in contrast to 99% of all the other birders I met, who couldn't separate Pine Siskin from House Finch) by finding a Northern Pygmy Owl in a tree overlooking the feeders. This showed very well through the scope, and was roundly ignored by all the other birds for some reason. Maybe it was full? 

Anna's Hummingbird

The feeders themselves were heaving with birds, though the set-up was poor for photography. Loads of Dark-eyed Juncos fed around a brush pile, and I was pleased to find at least one Yellow-eyed Junco in with them. Mexican Jays came in and out, and every now and again an Arizona Wood appeared – I eventually saw both sexes. The commonest birds were the Pine Siskins and Lesser Goldfinches, almost constantly on the feeders at the back. Broad-billed and Anna's Hummingbirds made regular visits, and Bridled Titmouse and White-breasted Nuthatch scampered around the trees. Other than the Owl, probably the best birds were a pair of over-wintering Hepatic Tanagers that made a brief appearance – stunning. Although I looked at other spots in the Canyon and in Florida Canyon, these feeders were the only place I saw Arizona Woodpecker. Be warned though, it is a constantly busy place, and the chit chat is inane.

Broad-billed Hummingbird

At this point I had a decision to make – continue birding the mountains, or try something different. Off to Pena Blanca lake I went, there to dip Rufous-capped Warbler. I did pick up my first Marsh Wrens, several Cinnamon Teal, and also a Neotropic Cormorant. Lots of Yellow-rumped Warblers around the lake edges too. My final stop of the day was Paton's yard in Patagonia. This was for a long time simply the garden of a pair of bird-lovers who were happy to share, but now that they have passed away it has been bought and preserved by a foundation who maintain the many feeders (not just sugar water feeders) just as the old couple did. There are seats and awnings, and it's a pleasant place to while away a couple of hours. No good for photography, though it might be better in the morning. Gradually as people drifted away more and more birds came out. These included a covey of Gambel's Quail, a pair of Inca Dove, a Lincoln's Sparrow, and two Towhee species. Practically no Hummingbirds though, again perhaps better in the morning. With dusk approaching I made tracks back north, passing a silhouetted Great-horned Owl looking like a massive cat on a post somewhere near Sonoita.

White-crowned Sparrow, memories of my first UK twitch

White-winged Dove

Gambell's Quail

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