Saturday, 19 March 2016

Arizona in Winter - Day 3

Day 3 – Sulphur Spings Valley, Fort Huachuca Canyon

Sleep is for girls. Today I got up at 4am for the long drive to Whitewater Draw, south-east of Tucson near McNeal. Really I should have stayed down near Patagonia somewhere as that would have been a lot closer, but nevermind. I got there for dawn and was greeted by a birders paradise. Thousands upon thousands of Sandhill Cranes blasting off from their roosting pools and heading off to feed. The noise was incredible, and in fantastic light the Cranes just kept going and going, heading out to the numerous fields to feed, as did a dozen Snow Geese. In photographic terms, the viewing platforms face entirely the wrong way for dawn, but occasionally a bird would circle back round into nice light. I would think that a dusk session could be very productive, and I very nearly changed my plans to come back but as this was mainly a birding holiday I resisted. 

Once the Cranes had mostly all gone I started birding in earnest. The pools were good for Waders, with Long-billed Dowitchers, an American Avocet, Greater Yellowlegs, Dunlin and Least Sandpipers. Duck numbers were good too, mostly Green-winged Teal and Shoveler, but also some more Cinnamon Teal. These are lovely ducks, and I saw them in pretty much any suitable habitat anywhere I went. A Black Phoebe flitted around the pools, and good numbers of Vesper Sparrow were seen. On the raptor front, both Coopers and Sharp-shinned Hawk hunted, and I had terrific views of a Northern Harrier perched in reeds, on the bank, and then quartering.

Cinnamon Teal

Northern Harrier

I spent the rest of the morning birding my way back up the valley, groups of roadside Cranes providing interest, as well as flocks of Lark Buntings. On the road to Kansas Settlement I was just wondering how on earth I was going to see a Roadrunner when I saw..... a Roadrunner by the side of the road. Awesome – a top target. The bird wasn't shy if I remained in the car, and by placing the car on the opposite verge (another victory for the 4x4 btw) I was able to get sensational views as the bird dashed to and fro, catching various bugs, tossing them into it's beak much like Roller does with larger insects. Every time it stopped it would raise its crest and cock its tail – and I think I detected the faintest of “meep meeps” too. I spent way too long watching this bird doing its thing, and consequently didn't have long at the lake at Willcox. Here there were hundreds of American Wigeon and Shoveler, a single Long-billed Curlew, and amazingly another Roadrunner that poked its head round the blind I was observing from to check me out – pure comedy. It was about two feet from me at one point! Also of note was a feedlot on the main road between Kansas Settlement and Willcox that hosted over a thousand Yellow-headed Blackbirds

Rusty Post Wren

Greater Roadrunner

The afternoon I spent being a bit touristy. It ain't necessarily all about birds, so I had great fun visiting the really quite tacky town of Tombstone. It's actually a real place, as is Yuma by the way. In fact many of the place and road names are incredibly evocative of the old wild west. Cripple Creek, Emerald Gulch, Bucking Horse Road and so on. This is where it all happened, and as a fan of the genre I was pretty pleased to be here. When I was last in Arizona in 1986 as an eleven year old, I'm not sure I'd ever watched a western. Now having watched a great many of them I was finally in a position to appreciate it. Tombstone has been “preserved”, albeit in the Disney sense of the word for the most part, with many of the historic buildings selling tourist tat, which I avoided. I was severely tempted for a while by a Stetson, but realised I couldn't pull it off. However for many residents down in this part of the country it's actually the normal way to dress. These days they drive F350s rather than horses, but they still wear boots, jeans, checked shirts and wide-brimmed hats. I'm also pleased to say that many of the modern cowboys still have guns. Not really. I mean, why? I was paying for fuel when I realised the guy in front of me had a 9mm pistol in a holster strapped to his waist. So did the guy coming in for a soda. A restaurant I went to had a sign that said to please leave guns in the car. They're obsessed! AZ is about as far from Washington as you can get, and Obama probably doesn't carry much sway down here. So yes, lots of guns unfortunately. I even saw some drawn ones, driving past some kind of take-down event in Sierra Vista. I was stuck at some lights when police cars appeared from nowhere converging on a roadside shop, and all of a sudden there were guns out (as in BIG guns) and a guy on the ground. Luckily my light turned green and I was able to get out of there, but this is probably a daily occurrence when firearms are such a way of life.

Curve-billed Thrasher

My next encounter with guns came at Fort Huachuca, a military base close to the Mexican border, and temporary home to a wintering Sinaloa Wren, perhaps the fifth ABA record so seriously rare. As an American citizen (and proud, ahem) I was rightfully allowed to twitch it, but getting access was a huge mission. I got past the first set of soldiers, and then had to visit a command post and attempt to complete a form designed for real Americans, generally centered around driving licences and social security numbers. I was unable to fill in much apart from my name, eye colour and weight, which I took great delight in entering in stone. Basically I confused the hell out of them, and at one point there was a conference call  with a superior that needed my UK driving licence and both passports. A yet higher authority was consulted, approved of my twitchery and yankness, and I was duly issued a 30 day access pass. Yeehah! 

Trouble is this all took ages, and I was left with only an hour of light in which to find the bird. So I drove through the final set of soldiers (who sadly did not salute) and found myself in a mini-city crawling with camo-clad military types. It was like birding in the UK! I passed Humvees, huge trucks, you name it, and finally found the canyon at the back of the massive area. The Ebird directions were excellent, and in searching the 100m or so of stream below the first bridge I found the Wren within 20 minutes. Some scrabbling Juncos in a patch of dead sticks put me onto it – the Juncos flew out but there was still noise from within and soon I was getting glimpses of the speckled face of this immense rarity. At one point it came fully out but within my minimum focusing distance – damn 500mm!! Still, a great score for the ABA list that I don't keep and that is entirely pathetic given there are several hundred resident birds I've yet to see! Nonetheless I was very pleased, after all I was not in a tour group having birds pointed out to me, I was doing this all on my own, and part of the satisfaction comes from the coming together of all the lengthy planning and actually succeeding. On paper it all seems very straightforward, I will go here and see this bird, and then I will go here and see this bird, easy. When you're actually in situ it's a whole different story, so it's good when it works. As mentioned, versus my various bits of paper that passed as research I missed loads, but aside from the cost element I'd much rather find fewer birds myself than be shown more birds by other people. Finnish Owls are the exception, and whilst I'm still limping from that one, that was a very objective and ultimately sensible decision.

A long drive back to Tucson during from almost Mexico, during which I got stopped by the Border Patrol looking for illegal Sinaloa Wrens. I kept quiet, and so did they. 

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