August 25, 2014 [LINK / comment]

West by Southwest: Birding in the desert

It was nearly a month ago that I returned home from an extended summer vacation out west that included multiple objectives, including (of course) birds! (See also my desert scenery travelogue, to be posted tomorrow, and my baseball road trip, which was posted last July 31.) My main destination was southern Arizona, well known as a haven for a wide variety of semi-tropical birds that are found nowhere else in the United States. Although I missed a few target birds, my endeavors were quite successful overall.

The rest of this blog post is an extended version of an article that I submitted for publication in the Augusta Bird Club newsletter. It is divided into four main sections, corresponding to the three legs of my trip in late June and early July, plus a section for South Dakota and Nebraska, where I birded in July. Bold face letters denote first sightings (on this trip) of special birds (mostly life birds), and red letters denote special birding locations. For each region, I created a photo montage to summarize the bird highlights, and I have added separate photos of some of the most striking birds that I saw.

Going west: South-central plains

Getting to the ultimate destination of Arizona was quite a challenge in itself. For a variety of reasons, I decided to drive out to the Midwest rather than fly, and likewise I drove all the way from the Midwest to Arizona, with my father as passenger as far as New Mexico. Things got off to a good start in the "Show Me" state of Missouri, during a brief side trip into the city of Joplin, where we saw a pair of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers. I had to do a sudden U-turn on a busy street to take advantage of the photo opportunity, and the effort paid off. I had seen that species three times before: once in Oklahoma (1998), once in Nicaragua (2005), and once in the hamlet of Hermitage, northwest of Waynesboro, in June 2009. (My report to VARCOM in 2009 was rejected, however, because there was no photographic evidence, and the light conditions were mediocre.) The other ten or so Scissor-tailed Flycatchers were in central Texas.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, east of Roscoe, Texas.

Among other birds unique to the south-central plains region that we saw were Great-tailed Grackles, first seen in southern Oklahoma, and White-winged Doves, first seen in downtown Dallas. The farther we drove, the more common Western Kingbirds became. Heading west from Dallas-Fort Worth, the grasslands gradually thinned and turned into parched scrublands, eventually turning into parched deserts as we crossed the Pecos River into western Texas. That is where I saw my first Black-throated Sparrows, as well as more White-winged Doves.

Destination: Arizona or bust!

After visiting with my aunt and uncle in Las Cruces, New Mexico (where my father stayed for the next few days), I resumed the westward trek on June 25. In western New Mexico, approaching the awe-inspiring Animas Valley, I saw my first Curve-billed Thrasher. Soon after that, I crossed into Arizona and saw a Say's Phoebe and a Cassin's Kingbird at two successive rest stops. I was in a hurry to get to see a baseball game in Phoenix that evening,* or else I might have spent more time at the rest stops along I-10 at Dragoon Mountains especially the one on Gila River Indian Reservation. That is where I saw my first Black-tailed Gnatcatchers and Verdins. Eurasian Collared Dove.

* Inside Chase Field, with the roof closed, I saw two Mourning Doves perched on a support wire, during a Diamondbacks-Indians baseball game!

Desert birds (clockwise from top left): Verdin, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Painted Redstart, Gray Hawk, Cactus Wren, Acorn Woodpecker, Gambel's Quail, and in the center, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher. Arizona.

I didn't have a specific itinerary for my trip, but had a rough idea of my priority target areas based on a book on birding in Arizona which my brother John lent to me. (He has been there at least three times.) My first target area (on June 26) was the irrigated farmlands north of Marana, which is northwest of Tucscon. It seemed like a strange place for birds, in the middle of soybean fields and pecan orchards, but it proved fairly productive. I was pleased to see Black-tailed Gnatcatchers and Phainopeplas at several locations, as well as Verdins and (probable) Hooded Orioles. I almost got a great closeup photo of a Summer Tanager before it flew away, which I bitterly regretted, but I had another chance a couple days later, fortunately. Late in the afternoon I briefly drove inside Saguaro National Park west of Tucson, but didn't see much other than a Raven. They are fairly common in the desert southwest, which is beyond the range of any crow species.

The next day (June 27) at the Sabino Canyon visitor's center, I saw my first Cactus Wrens, a Lucy's Warbler, a Gila Woodpecker, and a Brown-crested Flycatcher. That is a beautiful facility, with lots of information for birders and other nature lovers. But it was extremely hot (reaching 110 degrees), so to escape the desert heat, I decided to explore the Santa Catalina Mountains, northeast of Tucscon. About one-third of the way up, at Middle Bear picnic area, I came across my first Painted Redstarts, Acorn Woodpeckers, Spotted Towhees, a Plumbeous Vireo (similar to the Blue-headed Vireo), some Blue-gray Gnatcatchers (like we have in the east), and Yellow-eyed Juncos. Driving to an even higher elevation, in the midst of a cool, lush coniferous forest, I found several Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, a Broad-billed Hummingbird (with a striking bluish throat and green belly), plus a Cordilleran Flycatcher. Finally, near the summit of Mount Lemmon (9,000+ foot elevation), I saw a few Wild Turkeys. That was very unexpected! It was getting late in the afternoon, so I had to hurry back to Tucson before dusk.

The next morning (June 28), I paid a quick return trip to the Sabino Canyon visitor center, where I saw many more Verdins, and even some Purple Martins; that was a surprise. (NOTE: For lack of time, I decided against taking the tour bus up into Sabino Canyon itself, so I probably missed a few good birds up there. Private automobiles are not allowed in there.) I kept looking in vain for a reported Greater Roadrunner, in vain, but finally got some satisfaction when I spotted a pair of Gambel's Quails. Unfortunately, they kept scurrying away, and I only got one mediocre photo. But the biggest thrill was when I came upon a strange brown-camouflaged bird resting on the ground. I got some great closeup photos before it flew away, and later determined that it was a Lesser Nighthawk. Wow!

Lesser Nighthawk, at the Sabino Canyon visitor center, Arizona.

From the Tucson area, I headed south along I-19 and decided to bypass Madera Canyon, in the Santa Rita Mountains. (That's another birding hot spot I missed.) At a rest stop south of Green Valley, I saw a Ladder-backed Woodpecker, a Canyon Towhee, a Rufous-winged Sparrow, and my first-ever Pyrrhuloxia, not far from its more familiar relative, the Northern Cardinal. Within a mile or so of the Mexican border, in Nogales, I heard the scream of a raptor, and before long spotted a Gray Hawk in the tree tops. I spent over a half hour tracking it down to get in good position for a photo, and the results justified the effort. Then I turned northeast toward the town of Patagonia, near which there is a famous nature preserve operated by the Nature Conservancy. It was in that vicinity that I spotted Vermilion Flycatchers (which I had seen before in Mexico), and my first Bridled Titmouse, Lucy's Warblers, and Bewick's Wren. But best of all was getting an excellent look at a bird that I have seen only rarely here in the east: a Yellow-breasted Chat!

Yellow-breasted Chat, in Patagonia, Arizona.

The next day (June 29) I spent a few hours in the San Pedro River Riparian Area, just east of Sierra Vista and adjacent Fort Huachuca. It's a veritable oasis in the middle of the desert, and therefore a magnet for a huge variety of colorful birds. Just outside the visitor's center (which features a friendly bookstore/gift shop) there were several Blue Grosbeaks, Black-chinned Hummingbirds, and Lesser Goldfinches. Along the river itself, and the nearby pond, I saw Summer Tanagers, Vermilion Flycatchers, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, an Abert's Towhee, a Varied Bunting (female), a pair of American Coots (!?), and some Common Ground Doves, among others mentioned in above paragraphs. Another birder I met there had seen some male Varied Buntings, and I was disappointed not to. But no matter, I was delirious with sensory overload. smile San Pedro River is a very special place, so I got myself a souvenir hat to replace my Augusta Bird Club hat, which I lost somewhere in the Tucson area. frown

Summer Tanager, at the San Pedro River, Arizona.

My final target area in Arizona was the Chiricahua Mountains, where Elegant Trogons are often seen -- but alas, not by me on this trip. (I had seen one in Costa Rica in 2005.) But as I approached the mountains along a dusty desert road in the early morning of June 30, I finally got lucky with great views of two of two other target birds: a Greater Roadrunner, and a Gambel's Quail. At the Ranger's Station, where I was given lots of friendly information, I saw my first-ever Hepatic Tanager, and in the canyons and mountains up ahead I saw Mexican Jays, a Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, and an Ash-throated Flycatcher. I thought I heard a Black-throated Gray Warbler singing, but it turned out to be a Yellow-eyed Junco. That was weird. Some of the roads up there are pretty rugged, so I decided against going to the higher-elevation Rustler Peak, where various warblers, etc. are said to breed.

Returning east: South-central plains

The final leg of my adventure (when my father rejoined me, on July 1) took us north along the Rio Grande through New Mexico. In the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, there were many Double-crested Cormorants, Pied-bill Grebes, two Greater Roadrunners, and my first-ever Cinnamon Teals. There were many hummingbirds at the visitor center, but overall, the number of birds didn't justify the lengthy time we spent.

Further north, on the morning of July 2, we stopped at the Las Vegas (New Mexico, not Nevada!) National Wildlife Refuge, where we saw a Vesper Sparrow, Western Meadownlarks, Western Kingbirds, and a Cassin's Kingbird. The ranger suggested a circuit route for us to take, but there wasn't much birding activity so we decided to cut it short. But just as we were about to exit, I spotted a large brown bird perched on a fence post. Could it be? Yes, a Burrowing Owl, which flew away just after I clicked the camera shutter! Later that day, in the panhandle of Oklahoma, we saw a pair of Swainson's Hawks, and I pulled over by the side of the highway to get some photos. Soon thereafter we crossed into Kansas at the town of Elkhart, got some advice at the headquarters for the Cimarron National Grassland. I made a big mistake by taking a side road which turned out to be a primitive, rutted dirt track. We're lucky we didn't get stuck in the middle of nowhere. I heard (but never saw) a Bobwhite, and saw both Eastern and Western Kingbirds, and got a blurry long-distance photo of a Bullock's Oriole, the western relative of the Baltimore Oriole. Nice, but it didn't justify the time spent or the danger incurred. Then around mid-afternoon at a rest stop on the east side of Dodge City, Kansas, I had my first good look at a Mississippi Kite, as well as a great closeup look at a Western Kingbird. Late in the afternoon, in a wetland area called Cheyenne Bottoms near the center of the state, I saw several American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts. Even more big surprises!

In Salina, Kansas, on the morning of July 3, we saw two Mississippi Kites flying around, one of which was St. John's Military School. A third one was brooding in a nest high up in a tree. How about that!? Then we drove north through Nebraska, but didn't see much along the way. We crossed into South Dakota and returned home in Vermillion late in the afternoon.

Grassland birds (clockwise from top left): Western Kingbird, Burrowing Owl, Black-throated Sparrow, Swainson's Hawk, White-winged Dove, Cinnamon Teal, Mississippi Kite, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, and American Avocet.

Overall, I saw a total of 40 new bird species during that trip, give or take a couple. (I will update my Life bird list page and my Wild Birds, yearly photo gallery page later today.) My casual approach to bird traveling isn't for everyone, but I get more enjoyment out of spontaneous discovery. If I had gone on one of those guided tours, I'm sure I would have seen more species. Likewise, I really should have knocked on doors of some of the houses where bird feeders are maintained in places such as Portal, Arizona. My big "misses" included Black-headed Grosbeaks, Western Tanagers, and Blue-throated Hummingbirds. (I learned that many more hummingbirds are seen in Arizona late in the summer, after the typical heavy rains and bird migration begin.) But whatever travel approach you prefer, southern Arizona should be near the top of any serious birder's "bucket list" of places to see. You won't be disappointed!

Also: South Dakota & Nebraska

Most of my vacation time was spent in "The Prairie State" of South Dakota, with a couple brief forays into neighboring Nebraska. Even before I headed out to the southwestern deserts, I got some good bird photos at Spirit Mound and vicinity. Dickcissels are very common along country roads, about as common as Indigo Buntings are in the rural east. I got great closeup photos of those, as well as of Baltimore Orioles and Orchard Orioles, at various locations. Same thing goes for Red-headed Woodpecker, which is the most common woodpecker species in the rural Midwest. I only saw a Lark Sparrow twice, but I got a superb closeup photo of one.

On July 9, my father and I drove down to Adams Natural Area, near North Sioux City, South Dakota. Highlights there included Red-headed Woodpecker, Dickcissels, both Baltimore and Orchard Orioles, a Common Yellowthroat, a Warbling Vireo, both Western and Eastern Kingbirds, and a dozen or more Wood Ducks (mothers with babies).

On July 10, my father, John, and I drove down to the Missouri River landing southeast of Burbank, South Dakota. There we saw an immature Bald Eagle soaring above, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, an Indigo Bunting, a Common Yellowthroat, a Warbling Vireo, plus the usual orioles, Eastern Kingbird, etc.

On July 14, my father and I took a casual drive northeast of town and saw some Horned Larks, plus more Dickcissels. The next day we drove near the Missouri River south of town, and saw more Horned Larks, plus a female Yellow Warbler, Eastern Kingbirds, and a pair (M & F) of Blue Grosbeaks. On July 16 I saw a House Wren and Orchard Oriole in Cotton Park, along the Vermillion River.

South Dakota birds (clockwise from top left): Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Dickcissel, Red-headed Red-headed Woodpecker, Lark Sparrow, Blue Grosbeak, Least Tern, Bald Eagle (immature), and in center, Baltimore Oriole.

On July 17 we went on a lengthier trip, first to Clay County Park, on the Missouri River. There I saw Red-headed Woodpeckers (including a juvenile), a singing male Yellow Warbler, and an Eastern Wood Pewee. Later on, at the Vermillion Prairie Nature Conservancy preserve, we saw a Dickcissel at very close range, and I got a nice photo. Finally, at Spirit Mound, I saw a male Blue Grosbeak. I was surprised how many of those there were in South Dakota.

In my final visit to Spirit Mound, on July 22, I saw what I thought were LeConte's Sparrows, but after looking at the photos I decided they had to be (female and juvenile) Bobolinks. Too bad I never saw a male, though I did hear one singing nearby. There was also a Common Yellowthroat singing vigorously. A few miles to the northeast, in the flooded plain of the Vermillion River valley, I saw several dozen Great Blue Herons, many Killdeers, a gull of some sort, and two shorebirds: a Lesser Yellowlegs and a Willet.

On July 23, we made one last road trip, crossing the Missouri River south of Vermillion and heading west to Niobrara, Nebraska, where I saw a Common Yellowthroat, some Orchard Orioles, and a Bell's Vireo. From the parking lot on the north side of the Missouri River bridge (first time I had been there), we saw dozens of swallows (Cliff, I assume), and an Eastern Phoebe. At a farm pond along Highway 50 heading back east, I saw 20 or so Ring-billed Gulls. At Gavin's Point Dam west of Yankton, I saw Orchard Oriole, and some Yellow Warblers.

On my final day in South Dakota, July 24, I spotted a Least Tern flying around a pond on The Bluffs Golf Course, and I was lucky to get a couple adequate photos of it. They are fast and acrobatic, suddenly diving after small fish! I also photographed a Northern Flicker on the ground at close range.

The final bird observations of note during my trip were on July 25, when I saw a Western Kingbird outside TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska, and another one perched on a support wire inside Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City, during a Royals-Indians baseball game!