After an awesome day in the Chiricahuas the day before, we spent our last couple of hours of daylight driving to our lodging for the night, two hours away in Rio Rico. This put us in perfect position to hit our first location of the day: the San Rafael Grasslands.
The San Rafael Grasslands is arguably the best location in the United States for wintering Baird’s Sparrow, which was not surprisingly our top target on this visit. It’s also a good location for our two raptors, Ferruginous Hawk and Prairie Falcon, as well as Sprague’s Pipit and McCown’s Longspur. The roads leading into the grasslands (specifically Harshaw Creek and Harshaw Canyon Roads) are decent spots for catching up with a roadside Montezuma Quail.
We ended up devoting around two and a half hours to the grasslands and nearby roads, and netted none of our targets. We found the entire location to be somewhat of a bust, with only meager amounts of sparrows and raptors to go around. It certainly did not live up to the advertisement of offering “some of the best [winter] birding in Southeastern Arizona” as mentioned in A Birder’s Guide to Southeastern Arizona.
Our few highlights (mostly species we had seen on previous days) included Canyon Wren (singing on the road into the grasslands), Northern Harrier, American Kestrel, Loggerhead Shrike, Horned Lark, Vesper, Savannah and Grasshopper Sparrows and “Lilian’s” Eastern Meadowlark.
Frustrated and stunned by yet another promising location turned bust, we headed to nearby Patagonia Lake State Park in hopes of making up some of the damage. Our targets here included common western species that winter in the park, such as Red-naped Sapsucker, Gray Flycatcher and Cassin’s Vireo. I also hoped to show my dad the Elegant Trogon that commonly winters at this spot.
We ended up devoting two hours to this location, walking 1.5 kilometers, and netting nearly forty species. It was a fun spot to bird, combing a few habitats (such as open water, marshy areas, mesquite woodlands and riparian vegetation and the manicured parking lot) and thus raising the amount of possible bird species to be seen.
Our list of highlights included many birds of different seasonal status in Southeastern Arizona, including permanent residents, wintering birds, and newly-arrived breeders. They were: Gadwall, “Mexican” Mallard, Northern Shoveler, Green-winged Teal, Lesser Scaup, Common Merganser, Ruddy Duck, Neotropic Cormorant, White-faced Ibis (all in the vicinity of the lake), Broad-billed Hummingbird, Gila Woodpecker, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Black Phoebe, Vermillion Flycatcher, Bell’s Vireo, Bridled Titmouse, Verdin, Bewick’s Wren, Lucy’s and Yellow Warblers, Green-tailed Towhee, Lark Sparrow, Bullock’s Oriole and Pine Siskin.
We were also able to connect with Gray Flycatcher, in the form of a single bird that showed well to the east of the lake, calling and foraging in the surrounding vegetation. It was my last breeding Empidonax species in North America, the sight of which left me with a bittersweet feeling, much like the Juniper Titmouse the day before.
After watching the flycatcher, we crossed Sonoita Creek and began walking the rough path eastward along its northern bank, heading away from the lake. Our primary target was the wintering Elegant Trogon at this location, a species I was hoping to show my dad for the first time.
After walking for nearly twenty minutes with no evidence of our quarry, we suddenly were stopped in our tracks by a vocalization I had been wanting to hear so badly during our travels in Arizona, but one I thought I’d never connect with. It was the wheezing of a gnatcatcher, and the second I heard it, I realized the rarest North American representative of this family had been reported at this location over a week before, although I never thought we would be able to catch up with it.
Indeed, stumbling across the Black-capped Gnatcatcher was in a bout of pure luck, something we had been severely missing on this trip thus far. It took a couple of minutes of listening, but we were eventually able to pin down this flighty species, foraging in the mesquites above us, giving its distinctive wheezes intermittently.
We spent a while watching this awesome bird, thrilled by our success and dumb luck, as we had simply been wandering along the trail in search of a trogon, with no inkling of seeing this species in our minds, when it had suddenly appeared, literally out of nowhere.
The gnatcatcher had the same effect as the Mexican Chickadee and Juniper Titmouse the day before, as it put us back on the right track after some frustrating stops and misses.
After a little while, the gnatcatcher wandered a bit off the trail, and although we could still hear its distinctive call notes, we decided to leave it in peace in favor of keeping up the day’s pace, and staying on schedule.
We moved on to the town of Patagonia, where, after a nice lunch, we hit the world-famous Paton’s Yard and Feeders. Although none of our priority species of the day lay here, I was hoping to show my dad some more hummingbirds, as they were some of his favorite species on this trip, as well as on our visit to California the summer prior, and to relax in front of these normally busy feeders.
The Paton’s Yard looked just the way I left it a couple of summers before, the feeders still hopping and the great birds abounding. Highlights included the specialty bird at this location, Violet-crowned Hummingbird, as well as Broad-billed Hummingbird, Gila Woodpecker, Vermillion Flycatcher, White-breasted Nuthatch, Green-tailed Towhee, Lincoln’s Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Pyrrhuloxia as well as the omnipresent Pine Siskins and Lesser Goldfinches.
After the Paton’s, we made our way to the Huachuca Mountains, and more specifically, Miller Canyon, one of the best locations for Mexican Spotted Owl in Southeastern Arizona. This species was another frustrating miss on my initial Arizona trip a couple of summers back, and I was hoping to remedy that pain by connecting with one of the Miller Canyon birds, and enjoying it with my dad.
Arriving at the Beatty’s property, we found ourselves to be the only birders present, a radically different change from the throngs of other birders I experienced on my summer visit to this location. We were quickly greeted by Tom Beatty Sr. who kindly took the time to give us precise and extremely detailed directions to the owls’ chosen roost tree that day.
We soon found ourselves making our way up the canyon, and it didn’t take long to connect with a pair of Spotted Owls, which were both roosting together that day.
We spent a while admiring these awesome birds, as they slept together at the base of a branch. Besides glancing at us and the surroundings a few times, they seemed to be very contest in their sleepy state, and never strayed from their perch.
We eventually left the owls in peace and headed back down the canyon, thanking Mr. Beatty for his terrific directions, and for allowing birders onto his property to look for these wonderful birds.
Other than the owls, the property was ominously quiet, with only three other species recorded: Hutton’s Vireo, Mexican Jay and Common Raven.
After our stint in Miller Canyon, my dad and I headed to our last stop of the day, nearby Ash Canyon and the property of Mary Jo Ballator, another homeowner that kindly allows birders to view the feeders on her property.
Our plan was much the same as the Paton’s yard earlier: relax and enjoy the feeder birds, and maybe pick up a new hummingbird for the trip in the process.
That new hummingbird came in the form of a Magnificent Hummingbird, one of the two largest species of North American hummers.
Other highlights included: Cooper’s Hawk, Broad-billed Hummingbird, Acorn, Gila and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Mexican Jay, Bridled Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Lincoln’s and White-crowned Sparrows, Pyrrhuloxia and our second Scott’s Oriole of the trip.
After forty-five minutes or so at Mary Jo’s, we were on the road again, heading to our night lodging in Green Valley. It had been another successful and exhilarating day of birding in Southeastern Arizona, an area that is truly a mecca for birds and birders alike, and one I doubt I’ll ever tire of visiting.