Birding in Texas and Arizona (2009)
It was April 1. My wife Dorothy and I visited Guadelupe Mountain National Park in western Texas, where we hiked for most of the day. Although my wife is not a birder, I always take my binoculars on these hikes. The best birds on our hike were a group of four Townsend's Solitaires, a thrush that I had not seen in many years. Leaving the national park, we drove west to stay in El Paso. The drive over the flat scrub land was unbelievably boring, broken only by the occasional view of cattle and wait... What's this? Could it be? Yes! A group of at least 12 Pronghorns grazing close to the road! I have not seen Pronghorns for over 20 years, when we saw them in northern Arizona near Meteor Crater.
Leaving El Paso this April morning, we quickly passed into New Mexico and headed west on Highway 9, which closely parallels the border with Mexico. Our goal today was to go to Douglas, AZ where a Blue Mockingbird has been regularly seen for over a month now at the Slaughter Ranch. During the entire drive across New Mexico, Border Patrol vehicles outnumbered all others. This is probably the safest road in the country if your vehicle breaks down. You are sure to get help within a few minutes, five at the most. There is no border wall here, only a modest fence visible for much of the journey. Recent reports indicate that illegal immigration is down, but the death toll of immigrants is rising. The reason for this is that the increased security in the heavily populated areas are forcing the immigrants to cross in much more difficult and longer routes. We reached Douglas at about noon, had lunch, and drove out to the Slaughter Ranch. If it was ever mentioned in the online posts, I had long forgotten it, but the drive was 15 miles of rough dirt road. Our minivan had a disturbing rattle coming from the front left, but we got to the ranch at about 1:00 PM. The Slaughter Ranch is open for self-guided tours with an admission price of $8.00 per person. There were at least ten other birders there when we arrived. The ranch is an oasis in the desert, with a large pond, tall cottonwood trees, and a lush green lawn. The contrast to the surrounding desert scrub is startling. Because of the water, it is a magnet for birds. The Blue Mockingbird had been regularly seen in a hackberry thicket. It was difficult to concentrate on looking for the Blue Mockingbird because there were so many other birds to see. The pond had lots of coots, Ring-necked Ducks, and Cinnamon Teal. Warblers were everywhere, but I could only find Yellow-rumped and Yellow Warblers. Vermilion Flycatchers seemed to be everywhere! In the hackberry thicket were Northern Mockingbirds, White-crowned Sparrows, Mourning and White-winged Doves. Two small doves flew out of the thicket, but were too quick for me to identify. (A pair of Ruddy Ground Doves had been seen regularly here.) The most recent post about the Blue Mockingbird indicated that it was seen from the dirt path on the south side of the thicket. I proceeded there and saw about seven other birders along this path, patiently waiting. I walked past most of them to a place where I could sit in the shade and see into the thicket through an opening. After only about ten minutes, I heard some rustling of the leaf litter. I could see the leaves moving in the thicket and looked into the area with my binoculars. Immediately, I saw the deep blue body and knew it was the Blue Mockingbird! Eventually, he raised his head and I could see the large bill and the black mask. I watched the bird for about a minute, soaking in the experience, before I quietly signaled for the others to see it. Soon, everyone had seen it, making some birders from Alberta, Canada and San Francisco very happy. (More recent posts from the Slaughter Ranch indicate that there are two Blue Mockingbirds in this thicket!) My wife and I left the Slaughter Ranch and returned on the rough road to Douglas. The rattling got louder from the front left wheel, requiring a one hour visit in a repair shop in Douglas to fix the loose brake pads. From here, we continued on to Phoenix to stay with my daughter for a week.
On April 9, I decided to go birding all day. I had been to Florida Canyon three times trying to find the Rufous-capped Warblers that have been there since December. It's an easy place to find, but a difficult walk to get into the canyon. You must climb over rocks, following a dry stream bed to get to the where the warblers are. On the drive into the canyon, I spotted Loggerhead Shrike, Black-throated Sparrow, Red-tailed Hawk, and Phainopepla and heard Verdin and Bell's Vireo. The walk up the trail to the stream bed was slow because of all of the warblers, most of them Yellow-rumped and Black-throated Gray, but also a Nashville and a Painted Redstart. Also, among the warblers were Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Hutton's Vireo, Plumbeous Vireo, Bridled Titmouse, Hermit Thrush, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, and Hooded Oriole. I met four other birders in the area where the Rufous-capped Warblers have been found. We agreed to space ourselves out and watch our areas for movement. During the wait, Canyon Towhees were making a real fuss, chasing each other all over the area. There were at least three pairs active in a small area. Other birds included Canyon Wren, Cactus Wren, House Wren, House Finch, Hammond's Flycatcher, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Chipping Sparrow, Mexican Jay, Lesser Goldfinch, and Broad-billed Hummingbird. One couple gave up and left. I was about ready to leave after two hours, when I heard the sharp call note. It was close to the other birders! Soon, they were peering into a shrub and waved for me to come down. I looked into a small willow and first saw a Lincoln's Sparrow. Something else moved slightly higher and... there it was! The Rufous-capped Warbler! We watched as the warbler moved higher into another tree and broke out into its song. Without moving, we were able to watch the warbler leisurely for several minutes before it disappeared further up the canyon. Happily, I returned down the trail, adding a Costa's Hummingbird to the day's list.
From here, I planned to go to nearby Madera Canyon. Along the road, I stopped to see Bell's Vireo and also found Rufous-winged Sparrow, Curve-billed Thrasher, Turkey Vultures, and Common Ravens. In Madera Canyon, I wanted to stop at Proctor Road, but two school buses of children convinced me that birding would be better further up the canyon. I parked at the amphitheater parking lot and walked up to the Madera Kubo Bed and Breakfast. Here, they have numerous feeders, attracting a wide variety of birds. Watching the feeders, I added a first year male Scott's Oriole, Acorn Woodpecker, Black-chinned and Magnificent Hummingbirds, Pine Siskin, Mourning Dove, White-breasted Nuthatch, Townsend's Warbler, and Hepatic Tanagers. This is the same location where the Flame-colored Tanager has been frequenting for the past two summers. A walk up Carrie Nation Trail yielded only Northern Flicker and Winter Wren as new species. White-winged Doves were common at the Santa Rita Lodge feeders. Finally, late in the afternoon, I returned to Proctor Road to find a nearly empty parking lot. My target species here was the Black-capped Gnatcatcher, which I probably saw last December, but could not convince myself that I could positively identify it in its basic plumage. Today, I saw no gnatcatchers at all, but I did add a Rufous Hummingbird, Black Phoebe, Say's Phoebe, and White-crowned Sparrows to my day list. The drive down into Green Valley produced Chihuahuan Raven, Gambel's Quail, and Great-tailed Grackle. It was a very satisfying day with beautiful weather and a new life bird (Rufous-capped Warbler). There's still a lot of new birds that I can add to my life list in Arizona. Having a daughter that works in Phoenix gives me a good excuse to return again and again and... by Jim Valimont