It’s spring break, which means some folks are headed to Myrtle Beach. Some lounge around on the couch and watch a lot of TV. One teacher friend of mine curled up with a big stack of English papers and a green pen (yikes!). I traveled to southeastern Arizona for some quality time alone in the deserts and canyons.
Well, not alone exactly – I went to spend some time with the birds of the arid Southwest. April is a great time to visit. The weather was beautiful during my trip, mostly sunny with highs in the 70s to 80s depending on the elevation. I have to say that even though it is more pleasant temperature-wise in April, not all of my favorite birds are really back yet from their wintering grounds (I’m looking at you, Red-faced Warbler!). May, and even late July and early August score slightly higher on the cool bird index. Still, it was a great week here in Arizona.
Hummingbirds were a highlight. I’ve seen nine species, which isn’t too bad. A late summer visit can net you 12-15, depending on how many rare ones are about. The one pictured above is the aptly named Magnificent Hummingbird. Light refracts off of special feathers on its head and neck giving rise to amazing iridescence in the sunlight. Even in the shade, they can look pretty remarkable. The one below is a male Broad-billed Hummer.
While the deserts have a few specialty species, many hummingbirds are found at slightly higher elevations. I had some good hummingbird watching in Madera Canyon, Miller Canyon, and Ramsey Canyon. Speaking of the canyons, another one of my favorite canyon birds is the Acorn Woodpecker.
They look (and act) just like clowns. I love to watch their noisy antics. Acorn Woodpeckers are a fascinating species. They often live in loose colonies, and practice cooperative breeding strategies in which not only the two biological parents but also other members of the colony participate in raising the young. The colony also usually maintains a “granary tree” – which is a tree or snag that is used for storing copious numbers of acorns. A woodpecker drills a small hole, and then stuff a single acorn in so that it fits tightly. A granary tree many contain thousands of cached acorns.
While I was in Ramsey Canyon at the Nature Conservancy preserve there, I noticed that the next door Ramsey Canyon Inn is for sale.
I’m very happy as a teacher, but in my daydreams I think it would be awesome to cash in all my savings and run a birder’s B&B somewhere. It’s probably a ton of work, and not nearly as much fun as it seems in my dreams. But it gives me something nice to think about as I drift off to sleep here in my last night in Tucson.
Lest you think that my days were all filled with fun and frivolity, I want to set the record straight. Birding in Arizona is a highly perilous affair, with dangers lurking around every corner. Take for example, the sign I saw in Florida Canyon, south of Tucson:
I was lucky to escape with my life. And even luckier to see a pair of very rare Black-capped Gnatcatchers building a nest.
Despite finding most of the birds I was looking for this week, one particular Arizona species has been giving me trouble for years – and this trip started no differently. When you’ve been birding in Arizona as many times as I have, there aren’t many birds left to see here for the first time. But when I arrived, there was one on the rare bird alert that had managed to escape me during all of my previous trips: Rufous-backed Robin. These birds are quite uncommon, but there are usually multiple individuals sighted each year. They are most likely to appear in winter, however, and I usually visit in the spring and summer. Also, they can be very sneaky and skulky. I have looked for them on multiple occasions – perhaps 7 or 8 times in total. But they had always eluded me. These Robins are, in short, my nemesis bird.
The week before I left Seattle, I noticed that a particular Rufous-backed Robin had been hanging out at Catalina State Park for several months. Nemesis bird, prepare to meet your match! Actually, the Robin lived up to its nefarious reputation. I spent nearly four hours scouring its last known location on my first morning in Arizona, but it was a complete no show – and it hasn’t been seen since. Damn you, robin!
Then, last night, as I was deciding about what to do with my last full day in Arizona, I saw another report of a Rufous-backed Robin. This one was in Cienega Creek Preserve, a protected natural area just south of Tucson. I had never been there before, in part because a permit is required just to enter the preserve. I didn’t have a permit. But I found that you can apply for one online; three hours later, the completed permit was emailed to me. I was headed to Cienega!
The day dawned cool and cloudy. I parked at the Preserve’s dirt parking area about 20 minutes after sunrise. I placed a copy of my permit on the dashboard, and headed off down the trail. Cienega Creek Preserve is spectacular. The trail winds through a vibrant Sonoran desert scrub. I had to shuffle my feet to keep from stepping on several coveys of Gambel’s Quail as I was serenaded by Cactus Wrens and Bell’s Vireos. About two miles in, the trail entered an extensive stand of cottonwood trees, and the creek began to flow faster and deeper.
The cool air was scented with sage, cottonwood blossoms, and sweet petrichor. I arrived at the place where the Robin was last seen, and began to search. And search. And search some more. Then I took a break. And a walk. And had lunch. And searched some more. Suffice it to say that there were no robins on the trail this day. Part of me was pretty disappointed that my nemesis bird had again somehow escaped my grasp. But part of me was also deeply grateful that I keep missing these birds. If I hadn’t been tempted by the prospect of maybe meeting my nemesis, I never would have bothered applying for a permit to visit this unique and beautiful area. And I never would have gotten to know this special place. My nemesis taunts me, sure. But it also encourages me and inspires me, goads me on and fires my determination. So laugh, robins, laugh while you can. On my next visit, I’m going to hunt you down.
And thus ends this visit to Arizona. I don’t know exactly when, but I’ll be back in the not too distant future. There is always more to see.