Birding Big Year 2016

May 10, 2016

Epic Birding Trip Part 4: Birding Burro Creek to Cave Creek

Filed under: Adventure, Birding, Birds, Parks, Travel, Wildlife — wfkeck @ 1:36 pm
324 - San Pedro Riparian Conservation Area

San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area

March 28, 2016.  Captain’s Log 5:15 a.m. I’m back in the birding business, and up at dawn to chase a familiar call, but one not heard for the last 11 months.  I’ve got a neotropical migrant within earshot and I’m going to “bag” him.  I zero in on the general location of the kaBRIK that is coming from a large mesquite tree near the campground entrance.  A pair of sparrows are hopping around under vegetative cover and kicking up dust.  They might be Rufous-crowned Sparrows, and I’ll have to give them a closer look, but first – what is that other bird?  There he is, perched much closer than expected – one of my favorite flycatchers – Ash-throated. But before I hastily write him down, I crack the Sibley’s and convince myself that he is not a Brown-crested Flycatcher, remembering that we have just entered into his range as well.


Harry is stowing away gear, and I am arranging it in the vehicle.  Both of us are ready to do some hiking and photography down at Burro Creek.  Shortly, we are on the road and crossing the bridge, looking for the best access to the creek.  But so much bird life springs forth that I simply must park in the middle of the bridge and spring into action.  First we see a Phainopepla, that odd member of the silky-flycatcher family that makes me think “black cardinal” though there is no such thing.  Too composed is the birder who can stoically observe one and not marvel.  They’re just different enough and practically one-of-a kind….but I do go on.

Bridge birding continues, as I chase a woodpecker across the deck, probably Gila, but he slips away before I can claim 100% assurance. My second Green Heron of the trip nervously watches us from the creek bank.  Harry sees him too and briefly shares my enthusiasm.  Violet-green swallows swarm over Burro Creek, which is already reduced from a flow to mostly large, perfectly glass-like pools.  The orange cliffs and azure sky reflect to the point of artistic exaggeration.  God doubles down on beauty.

I can hear a number of other birds singing deep in the riparian willows, but I’m not in the best position to view them.  We park at the trailhead and slowly wander beneath the canopy, honing in on the source of the songs. I know a Bell’s Vireo when I hear one, so I teach it to Harry.  I could mark this one down and move on, but I want to see it. He is not intimidated by our approach, and we both get satisfactory looks. Next I set my sights on a Lucy’s Warbler, who is much less cooperative.  Harry loses interest and walks back to the jeep.  I walk farther across the sandy wash – there’s just too much activity to ignore: Canyon Wren, Lesser Goldfinch, and a Great Egret. These make the trip list, but are already on the Big Year List.  Just as I decide to reverse course back to the jeep, the most heart-arresting bird flits in and perches on a small snag, less than 30 feet away….ahhh, Vermillion Flycatcher, the darling of the desert. If you were to ask which of the 750 species in North America are my favorite….I might put Mountain Bluebird, Scarlet Tanager, Prothonotary Warbler, and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher in the top five, but Vermillion Flycatcher has no competition for number one.

“Do you want me to drive?” Harry asks.  Absolutely! I need some over-the-road study time and record keeping before I forget all that I have observed. I am oblivious to the desert landscape that unfolds along US Hwy 93; my head is buried in the book.  I surface about an hour later in Wickenburg, as we resupply on gas and ice for the cooler.  I am truly embracing the 80-degree weather and reflecting on reports from home over social media that the snow continues to pile up.

Back on the road again, we skirt most of Phoenix on the city’s west flank.  The trip-odometer registers 1,000 miles. Driving, driving…eventually Tucson comes in view.  As we approach Benson on I-10, we debate the options. Is there enough time to drop south to Sierra Vista and bird my favorite SE AZ hotspot (San Pedro), or do we rush on to Portal and get a couple more hours of birding in at our final destination of the day. I consider what species we might pass-up if we don’t visit the Riparian Conservation Area as originally planned months ago, and I weigh that against the possible birds I could get in Cave Creek with the extra hours. I am acutely aware of the fatal flaw in my planning – too much driving, not enough birding. I am not likely to see an Elegant Trogon at San Pedro, but chances are reasonable in the east slopes of the Chiricahua Mountains.  That possibility argues for the direct flight to the campsite. On the other hand, I’ve already dismissed several of the best SE AZ hotspots like Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, Patton’s Feeders, Madera Canyon, Florida Wash, and Ramsey Canyon.  San Pedro may be my last chance to list a Bendire’s Thrasher, and Abert’s Towhee, and Rufous-winged Sparrow.  The volunteers as San Pedro House also keep the feeders well-stocked and dozens of species hang out there and in the shadows of the giant Fremont Cottonwoods. Yes, we must go to San Pedro, there is just too much investment in time and money not to bird the Riparian Conservation Area.  Plus, I am so ready to get out of the jeep and stretch my legs.

As we pull into the parking lot, it is mid-day, siesta time for the birds. The professional birders are making their way back to vehicles.  I imagine all of the high-fives they were slapping after a productive morning of birding.  A large group of kids are playing, running, and screaming near the picnic area.  Yikes! I will have to bird somewhere else.  The seed feeders are empty.  The hummingbird feeders are mostly full, but after standing there for five minutes, nothing comes.  I bird like I used to fish – if nothing was biting, I kept moving upstream.

Putting about 200 yards distance between me and the home-schoolers, I walk a sandy path to the heart of the riparian zone. Peace, quiet, and no action.  I come to a long hidden pond where a coot swims in confusion.  He too is wondering where all the avian friends have gone.  I sit down and lean against a giant willow on the bank.  Sometimes, instead of chasing birds, it pays just to sit quietly and listen.  Often birds go silent at the approach of humans, but after sitting motionless for 3-5 minutes, they return to normal movement and song.  At the fourth minute, a family of seven (parents, grandparents, and kids) come brashly into my private world.  I smile, point out the coot, and joke with the kids.  Mom is apologetic.  “We are so sorry we have disturbed your quiet spot.” I assure them its ok.  I reap the joy of young children becoming excited at the distant look at a coot.  But still, I can’t waste time in unproductive areas.

The trail continues deep into the cottonwoods and finally I reach the trickling San Pedro River, almost narrow enough to jump across.  A mating pair of Vermillion Flycatchers are feeding on insects above the stream. They perch precisely where a ray of sunlight successfully penetrates the canopy and sets the red birds on fire. Out comes the Canon.  Also nearby a wren is chattering – possibly a Bewick’s.  And I think I hear a Yellow Warbler!  Here’s as good a place as any to settle down, watch, and wait.  A small bird works in and out of view along the creek-side vegetation.  The camera is ready, and the exposure settings have been tested. I’m prepped for a close encounter with one or more small birds almost upon me.  And then it happens.  Two pre-teen boys run up the trail, jump in the creek and have a make-shift sword fight with sticks.  Once traditional weapons lose their appeal, out comes the hand-sized rock grenades from the gravel bar.  Explosions ensue, water is tossed upon the bank, and all my birds have relocated upstream far from sight. There’s no point in getting frustrated, and the boys unknowingly become the subject of my photography.  In this age of endless video games, smart phones, and continuous academics, boys splashing in the creek, filled with imagination and exploration, gives me hope that the next generation might connect with nature and remember to protect it for their children.

San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, one of my top five most favorite birding areas, is an epic fail, producing nothing more than Prryhuloxia and Chipping Sparrow for the Big Year List. I return to the parking lot to find Harry at the wheel, ready to get down the road to our campsite. He drives with a sense of purpose through the historic mining town of Bisbee, into the border city of Douglas, and up Arizona Highway 80.  Across the vast San Bernardino Valley, we can see the general location of Geronimo’s surrender of 1886 in the western foothills of the Peloncillo Mountains.  The highway enters New Mexico just briefly at the small but resolute town of Rodeo. I relieve Harry and drive the rest of the way into a setting sun and through the gateway village of Portal, AZ.

Every campsite is occupied except the best one at the end of the loop.  How is that possible? I roll out of the jeep, physically spent, and practically stumble over a pair of yellow-eyed Juncos.  A small mob of Mexican Jays departs as soon as they are convinced we plan to spend the night. Likewise, Acorn woodpecker takes a higher position on the dead snag arching over the campsite.  I really should be unpacking the jeep, as the canyon is already pinching out the light, but a piercing one-note squeak coming from the woods north of the campsite suddenly takes precedent. Stealthy and patient as a stray cat, I edge ever closer to the source.  Eye level, just a few feet away is a perched Blue-throated Hummingbird, not the least bit interested in me. Four species in less than 3 minutes are added to the Big Year list – twice as many as two hours at San Pedro.  One wonders how many I might have seen if we had arrived a few hours earlier.

Minutes later, darkness settles over our canyon campsite like a cotton quilt on dew. All the food is stowed away in the metal bear box provided.  It’s windy and I’m worn.  Harry has settled into his cot positioned against a giant monolith that offers some protection from the elements…and bears.  I crawl into the jeep and am rocked to sleep by gusts of wind, dreaming of Trogons and Red-faced Warblers that are surely waiting to greet me at sunrise.

(Stay tuned for Epic Birding Trip Part 5: Chihuahuan Desert to Davis Mountains)

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