My Arizona Birding 3

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By the morning, I’ve changed my mind. I’ll go after the Wren another day. Someone mentioned the San Pedro River and the great birding to be had there plus I can hit another famed spot — Whitewater Draw — on the way back. I grab an egg bun at a fast food restaurant and a coffee, gas up and head towards the San Pedro house and the San Pedro National Conservation Area.

Western Screech Owl, San Pedro House

It’s bit of a drive to San Pedro and after a hundred miles or so I’m thinking fondly about bacon and eggs. I find a breakfast place in Buena Vista, a pretty town that seems to have a fairly affluent population. Afterwards, I discover it’s not far north of the border check where officers stop cars looking for illegal immigrants. There are great gulfs in this world, of all sorts. In any case, that stop rewards me with a pair of Chihuahuan Ravens, a species I’d hoped to see on the trip, plus I got my breakfast.

San Pedro House is yet another birding mecca. The old farmhouse is pleasantly situated in a grove of cottonwoods. Gila woodpeckers, various Sparrows, Lesser Goldfinches, and Inca Doves are working the feeders around it. In the cottonwoods, a Western Screech Owl occupies a nest box — its head stuffed through the opening, closed eyed and sleeping in the sun. From the high branches, a Merlin scans the area.

Lark Sparrows, San Pedro

It’s warming up nicely. The well-used trail leads through scrubby grass and sagebrush. Pyrrhuloxia seem to be everywhere, as do Lark Sparrows, which are abundant on these flats. The trail leads to a noisy brook — the San Pedro River. Apparently, this valley is on the routes illegal migrants take when they come up from Mexico but I see no evidence of this. A Rufous-crowned Sparrow is a highlight.

I leave San Pedro early enough to be able to visit Whitewater Draw, another renowned south Arizona location. The sloughs here are filled with waterfowl and large flocks of Sandhill Cranes line their low, sloping banks. They are noisy critters, those Sandhills, and I’m glad I’m not tenting in the area — sleep would be well nigh impossible.

Sandhill Cranes, Whitewater Draw, Arizona

A fieldtrip to the Sulphur Springs Valley is my last with the Festival. This one is about raptors and I’m excited about it. The valley is known for its raptors but, for miles, we see not a one. And then our luck changes. Near, on and about some stacks of hay bales in the middle of a field, the raptors have gathered. There are at least two big Ferruginous Hawks, standing on the ground, looking like eagles, perhaps a dozen soaring Redtails inhabit the quadrants of the sky Off to the left a Harris’s Hawk wings by, all black and russet; a Kestrel takes up post on a power line; and then, swooping close to the Ferruginous at lightning speed, a Prairie Falcon completes the picture. Surely, it’s the bales that draw them and the mice and rats that inhabit this rodent apartment building. It’s a thrill to see these raptors.

Harris’s Hawk, Sulphur Springs Valley, Arizona

We pile back into the school bus. Our leader is the same man from the day before. Then he was unlucky; today he is lucky; today makes up for all. At a farmhouse at a crossroads, we find a pair of nesting Great Horned Owls. I’m amazed, sometimes, at the behaviour of some birders. My philosophy with birds is to gaze for a polite measure of time, take my pictures, thank the bird for being there and then move off quickly and silently. I try never to crowd the birds, particularly owls. Resting is a life or death thing for them. Some people, however, seem to think that the birds are there for them t take pictures. They move up closer and closer, talking loudly, snapping shots with their phones. Maybe it’s okay but it bothers me to see such, for want of a better word, disrespect.

Great Horned Owl, Sulphur Springs Valley, Arizona

We’re seeing lots of other birds too. I’ve lost count of Meadowlarks (both Eastern and Western occur here but I can’t tell them apart, not with my eyes). We’ve also seen Thrashers, Loggerhead Shrike, a Red-naped Sapsucker and a couple of Ladder-backed Woodpecker. A brace of Greater Roadrunners fill out the score. And that’s it for the Wings Over Willcox festival. When the bus returns to the Community Center, most everything is packed up. Even the Kettle Corn seller who accosted every passerby has departed the scene. I return to my motel room. I’m ready to move on.

Point Pelee


I’ve never seen anything like it, this migration of birders, this simulacrum of a Big Year movie. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much fine optical glass and so many Tilly hats in one place in my life either. The warm front that brought birds to southern Ontario has also brought high humidity and thunderstorms. The rain on that first morning comes in big-drop, wind-driven curtains. I meet the tour leader in the northwest parking area and we wait. Another birder arrives and we’re off at last. I providently bought a too-short plastic poncho enroute and it’s keeping me dry where it counts. My extremities will have to fend for themselves. Soon I feel like the bedraggled Brown Thrasher I passed on my way here.

The Kentucky Warbler is in the brush between two roads; it’s singing but only a few have actually seen the bird. The singing stops abruptly so, reluctantly, we move on. There are lots of birds – many species of warblers, brown thrashers, king birds, Empi flycatchers, orioles and swifts and a beautiful female Summer Tanager. Someone has heard the Kentucky on the other side of the broad strip of woodland we’ve been covering and a flock of birders, us among them, dash off to the other side. This happens three times. It’s hilarious and fun. I never did see the bird incidentally.

Finally, the day comes to a close, this part of it anyway. I still have an evening tour planned. I passed a roadside restaurant near the park entrance and drive back. The owner, complaining about a drop on business, looks like he’s ready to close the joint. I order chips and gravy before he goes through with it — grease and gravy is the perfect antidote to the wet and quite tasty too. I rise and the wet denim, which had warmed up as I sat, fell cold and wet on my calves. The clods are threatening but I’m head back into the park anyway..

The weather is worse than in the day, mostly because the light level is low but also because the rain seems like its not going to let up at all. Thunderstorms roll in one, after the other, each one bringing sudden drenching showers. My dollar store poncho is barely holding its own against the elements and I’m flapping in the wind.

A few of us optimists gather in a parking lot, which is to end near a broad field of low willow where American Woodcock live and where males make their courting flights at dusk. Another King Lear-style mini-storm ends the walk almost before it begins. The rain we can handle but lightning is a different story. The walk is cancelled and we disperse. I’m driving out of the park when I notice, in my rear-view mirror, that the sky is lightening. I slow, ponder, and then make the U-turn. The rain has stopped by the time I’m back in the Woodcock field. It’s still too early for the birds to do their mating flights so I drive back to the beach to kill some time. A Brown thrasher, the first bird I saw at Point Pelee, sits in some willows, wet and bedraggled, looking forlornly out over the lake. He turns his head to shoots me an empathetic look. I nod a greeting and move on. For an hour, I wander the forest edge, dodging huge puddles, checking off a few birds, listening in vain for the Kentucky Warbler who has, it seems, moved on.

When do the Woodcock flights begin? I’m not sure. I’m back in the parking lot in plenty of time, waiting and scanning the skies a good half hour before dark. The breeze is chill now and I’m alone and waiting. A ranger in a pickup checks the parking lot and moves on. Thick clouds threaten more rain. Common Nighthawks appear. A raptor I can’t identify passes swiftly to the east. And then, when it’s almost too dark to see, I hear the twittering flight calls of Woodcock. A female buzz bombs out over the willows and then is gone out of sight. I listen to the males for a half an hour before, , hungry and shivering, I head for my barely adequate motel room in Leamington. I have a guided walk tomorrow before I make the long drive to Toronto Pearson to return my rental and catch my flight home.

The morning brings a change in the weather — cool sun and no rain. We meet at The Nature Center. Yellow Warblers seem to be everywhere. The destination is the “tip’ and we board the tram that takes us there. There are birds everywhere, the newest wave of migrants and all of us are glassing the bushes and pointing out birds. We disembark at our destination and xx leads us down the trail, stopping every time a bird appears or sings. I’m logging lots of species. This is the best day yet. By eleven in the morning, I have to leave. My Mini Big Year count is now 145 — only 225 species to go!