The next morning as we pulled ourselves out of bed and slowly started to shake off the cobwebs, we both realized that at this point our trip had been a complete success. Undoubtedly, probably the best birding trip we had ever been on. Rich suggested that perhaps we consider checking out and maybe drive partway back today, two days early. I followed that with, “well, why not just check out and head home!” So it was agreed that operation PhotoTrogon was a complete success and we were on our way home.
Well, we opted not to swing by Tony and Julie’s Battiste Bed Breakfast & Birds to look for the Elf Owl last night as we were just plain tuckered out from three long days of a very enjoyable, but slightly arduous birding and photography. So we were up early this morning, left Sierra Vista and headed towards Patagonia. As we pulled in to the parking lot at the Paton Center for Hummingbirds, we didn’t get 10 feet before we were distracted by many different species of birds coming to the feeders.
We settled in for a very calm and serene morning that was very quiet with lots of birds coming and going at the feeders.
The tranquility of the morning however was soon broken with the arrival of a contingent of birders from the Wings birding tour company. With a cacophony of noise and disruptive movements they descended on the quiet morning setting like a herd of water buffalo. They were completely oblivious to the setting and the need to be calm and quiet. The birder that was sitting next to me commented that their leader needed to quiet them down and take control of this boisterous group. However, it seemed the main culprit for most of the noise was the leader himself. The two of us were extremely annoyed with their lack of consideration.
I ended up leaving the compound and walked down the road towards the Sonoita Creek preserve just trying to see what was there. I noticed a flock of vultures overhead and quickly started scanning hoping for one of our target birds, the Zone-tailed Hawk.
Alas, I was not successful in picking that target bird out but I did get nice looks at both Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures.
After a couple of moments of enjoying more Bell’s Vireo and Dusky-capped Flycatchers, someone called out a Gray Hawk that was flying overhead. I did successfully capture one image of the bird in flight before it was lost amongst the trees over the river.
I was able to get more photographs of the very cool colorful birds of this part of the country.
After a very successful trip up Carr Canyon, we decided to return to the Ash Canyon Bird Sanctuary to see if we could photograph a Pyrrhuloxia, Scott’s Oriole or a male Lazuli Bunting while we killed time waiting to go to Tony and Julie Battiste’s Bed Breakfast and Birds house to see their famous house guest, the Elf Owl. Neither Rich nor I got any lifers, but I did manage to find a few birds to photograph.
After leaving Miller Canyon we took the road up to Carr Canyon which proved to be quite an arduous trip of 5 miles on a very long and winding dirt road.
It was steep and rocky and bouncy and if you looked over the edge as you were driving you would likely get vertigo, because it was a long ways down to Sierra Vista.
Our target up the canyon was the Reef Townsite Campground an unusual campground way at the top of the canyon.
At over 7200 feet the habitat changes from the Madrean Oak shrubland to to a pine forest with cool breezes and cooler temperatures.
ABOUT THE CAMPGROUND:
This high mountain campground was constructed on a site that was once occupied by the old mining town of Reef. That remote outpost got its name from the nearby Carr Reef, a tall band of quartzite-bearing cliffs that form the Huachuca Mountains’ dramatic eastern front. Mining activity along the Reef began during the last few years of the nineteenth century and proceeded in fits and starts all the way into the 1950’s.
The property occupied by the mines and the town was returned to public ownership in 1970, and in 1988, the Forest Service constructed a campground on the townsite. A number of picnic tables and tent pads were placed within the visible outlines of old cabin foundations. From Reef Townsite Campground webpage
This is a location that I had been to several times before and it would probably be the best place for many of our remainder target birds. As we pulled into the campground and rolled our windows down a birder walked up and started a conversation with us. He shared with us that they had seen Grace’s Warbler, Hermit Warbler, Buff-bellied Flycatcher and a Greater Pewee.
As we were talking a vireo began calling quite loudly in the trees just above us. We got on it right away and using our Merlin app again determined that we were indeed listening to the Plumbeous Vireo which is an all gray version of the Cassin’s Vireo but with no yellowish or tan coloration at all.
This bird continued to sing almost the entire time we were there. We eventually encountered several more of the Plumbeous Vireos and got very accustomed to their song and what they look like.
Next in the trees above us we saw a flycatcher flitting around catching insects and we quickly determined due to its all tan coloration that it was our target Buff-bellied Flycatcher.
As we walked around the campground for the next hour and a half we managed to find and photograph Hepatic Tanager, Grace’s Warbler, Painted Redstart and a Dusky-capped Flycatcher.
MR. JOSE MARIA – I HEAR YOU
We left the Reef Townsite Campground and headed towards the top of Carr Canyon to the Ramsey Vista Campground. I had just been talking with Rich about what the Greater Pewee sounds like with its “Jose Maria” call and as we cruised very slowly up the canyon I could hear the sounds of Mr. Jose Maria, AKA Greater Pewee calling from the top of the ridge.
By the time we headed back down the canyon Rich had snagged 4 more lifers bringing his trip lifer list up to 10!
This morning’s destination was to include my first ever visit up Miller Canyon to visit Beatty’s Guest Ranch. This hummingbird hotspot is at the end of Miller Canyon Road, 2.6 miles from Hwy 92 up a bumpy dirt road. At the end of the road we found a Forest Service parking area with trail access into the Miller Peak Wilderness Area, but that wasn’t our destination. We parked in that lot and walked the short distance up the road to Beatty’s Guest Ranch.
ABOUT THE GUEST RANCH
Long known to locals as a source of pesticide-free apples, eggs, honey, and beeswax, the orchard has become the hottest hummingbird-watching spot in Arizona. Owners Tom and Edith Beatty had long fed birds around their home and rental cabins, but in spring of 1998 they added a hummingbird feeding station and hummingbird/butterfly garden for the enjoyment of day visitors. The payoff has been 15 species of hummingbirds (up to 13 at one time) plus an astonishing variety of naturally occurring hybrids. The Beattys have added bleachers, a picnic table and a shade canopy to the Controlled Access Site (CAS) for visitors’ comfort.
We walked towards the entrance not knowing exactly where to go and we found a pretty Archway with the name Betty’s guest house. There was a little gazebo in front with two hummingbird feeders that was actively feeding several different hummingbirds.
I know that this location is a top spot for burgers and it didn’t seem like two hummingbird feeders was what we were supposed to be looking for. We looked around at many different signs walked down the road a ways and just didn’t seem to figure out where we were supposed to go.
We went back to the gazebo and photographed a couple of Rivoli‘s Hummingbirds and Broad-billed Hummingbird.
Eventually I noticed a small sign that had all of the directions that we needed on it.
It said very clearly to go south down the road to the gate. So we walked south, found the gate, paid our fees and followed the road to the obvious Hummingbird Crossing sign.
Next we crossed the bridge and went up the hillside to the bleachers.
Now it was obvious that we were at the right spot. There were hummingbird feeders all around. The nice part for us bird photographers, is that they all had ample natural looking perching spots with lots of surrounding shrubs and trees.
As I mentioned we were both unfamiliar with the White-eared hummingbird and while the male seemed pretty easy to identify, the female seemed a little less easy. As we watch the hummingbirds coming and going we would find a female Broad-billed and we would ask each other is that it? The female Broad-billed Hummingbird has a pretty prominent white eyeline and we decided that this was going to be a little more of a challenge than we realized.
After about 15 minutes of taking a dozen photographs of each female hummingbird that showed up, the very obvious female White-eared Hummingbird suddenly appeared at one of the feeders.
All doubt was removed and there was no question that this was the sought after target bird for the trip for me. As I had guessed, this would be the only lifer for me on the trip. And that was OK because we got lots and lots of photographs of some pretty cool birds.
Another group of birders caught up with us that we had birded with the night before at the Ash Canyon Bird Sanctuary and we told them about the White-eared Hummingbird female and wished them good luck. As we walked back towards the car we heard a very unusual bird call that I did not recognize. We quickly opened up our Merlin Bird app to see if it would give us some idea of what we were looking for and according to the app we were listening to Scott’s Orioles singing.
No, I wouldn’t let any ID be made strictly on the basis of the Merlin app, but it gave us a good idea of what we were supposed to be looking for. Pretty quickly we caught not one, but two Scotts Orioles working around the tops of the sycamore trees near the creek. This was another lifer for Rich and it was pretty interesting listening to their songs.
Nestled against the Huachuca Mountain Range just south of Sierra Vista and about 10 miles north of the US/Mexico border, the sanctuary used to be the Ash Canyon B&B owned and lovingly maintained by Mary Jo Ballator. Her dedication and devotion created a destination where people from around the world came to visit to see rare and beautiful birds like the Lucifer Hummingbird and Plain-capped Star-throat.
I met Mary Jo in April of 2019 when I spent almost an entire day birding and chatting with her and other birders. I remember so distinctly as she pointed to a smaller hummingbird feeder and stating “The male Lucifer Hummingbird prefers to visit this one first and he will perch briefly on this branch. Be ready because he’ll be here shortly!” Not 5 minutes later I got this image as he paused briefly on that exact branch. She was such a nice person and I vowed to return to visit her again. Sadly, Mary Jo passed away barely a month later.
Dr. Mario Molina contacted the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory offering to donate the full asking price of the property so that it could remain protected and open to the public. With this extraordinarily generous donation and the blessings of Mary Jo’s family, SABO assumed ownership of the property on November 1, 2019, to be managed as a permanent sanctuary for birds, other wildlife, and the people who love them.
BIRDING THE SANCTUARY
As we left the Paton Center, we were sitting at 67 species for the trip with Rich sitting at 3 lifers with the addition of the Ruddy Ground Dove. We had visited the Ash Canyon Bird Sanctuary when we came here in January of 2021 and were hopeful of getting some of the migrating birds we had missed then. As we pulled in to the parking area at 4:00 pm, our first thoughts were to find out if the Lucifer Hummingbird was being seen. Comments from others seem to indicate that “someone” had seen it recently. Another one of Rich’s target birds, Scott’s Oriole, had also been seen. As we watched both the hummingbird feeders and seed feeders, the local birds gave us lots of “Kodak Moments.”
Shortly after 6:00, a van full of birders pulled into the parking lot and we now had many eyes watching the feeders.
I happened to walk around to the public blinds area and I noticed a small, yellow-faced bird hopping around at the base of one of the smaller Mesquite trees. I immediately recognized it as a GRACE’S WARBLER. Rather than focusing on getting a photo of it, I called out to the group of birders sitting nearby and I tried to get them on it. Right away, the leader of the group commented, “It’s probably just a Yellow-rumped Warbler, ignore it. Grace’s Warbler doesn’t occur here.” Two of his group did get on the bird and confirmed the ID. He was correct in that Grace’s Warbler is a higher elevation bird, but we caught one that was passing through.
AND NOW, THE REST OF THE GRACE’S WARBLER STORY
I spent several minutes trying to re-find and photograph the warbler to no avail.
A couple of minutes later, Rich comes up to me to show me the LCD panel of his camera to ID an unusual bird he had just photographed. Sure enough, the Grace’s Warbler had popped up down at the lower feeding station and was posing for all the birders there. Photo by Rich Brown
LUCIFER “LIGHT-BEARING” HUMMINGBIRD MAKES AN APPEARANCE
The name of the bird likely derives from the Latin meaning of “Lucifer”, which is interpreted as “light-bearing” and likely refers to the iridescent gorget of the male.
One of the sanctuary volunteers commented that the bird liked to come in close to dusk and fill up for the night. Suddenly, the call goes out, “Feeder Station E, it’s here!” Sure enough, the male Lucifer Hummingbird came in not once, but several times as dusk settled in at the sanctuary. Lifer #5 for Rich.
THE PATON CENTER FOR HUMMINGBIRDS – A HISTORY OF HUMMINGBIRDS AND BIRDERS
I first learned about Wally and Marion Paton when Maria and I ventured to this area back in July of 1997. According to the Lane Bird Guide, it was a must stop location for all birders with its specialty being the Violet-crowned Hummingbird. I remember chatting with Mrs. Paton in their backyard while tallying species such as Summer Tanager and Yellow-billed Cuckoo.
The Violet-crowned Hummingbird is the bird to see at the Paton Center. Native to western Mexico, this species’ range just barely reaches into the United States, and the feeders at the Paton Center are the best — and often only — place in the country to see this spectacular bird. While the Violet-crowned may be the star of the show, an amazing total of 15 hummingbird species have been recorded at the Paton feeders, with 12 of these occurring most years. Depending on the time of year, Broad-billed, Anna’s, Rufous, Broad-tailed, and Black-chinned Hummingbirds may all be present at the feeders, along with less-common species such as Costa’s and Calliope Hummingbirds.
Rich and I arrived at the Center at noon and were checking off the species before we even left the parking area; Brown-crested Flycatcher, Gila Woodpecker, Summer Tanager and Northern Cardinal.
Soon we ventured into the backyard and added the star of the Center, a Violet-crowned Hummingbird. It was a brief encounter and would end up being the only time we saw one that afternoon.
I overheard someone mention RUDDY GROUND DOVE out in front and we took off to try and see it. This would be an American Birding Association area bird, though not a lifer as I had just seen many in the Yucatan last January. The docent got us on the calling female just across the wash and he got a scope set up so we all could see it clearly. This is a rare, but regular species overall in SE Arizona, but has been seen regularly here of late. It was not possible to get photographs of the distant female, but as luck would have it, a male appeared in the trees right next to the feeders and I managed a decent shot.
Over the course of our three hours of birding we logged 43 species with photos of 17 species. Ebird Checklist link.
The name Operation PhotoTrogon came about weeks ago as Rich Brown and I started planning our trip. We discussed the potential top target birds for the adventure and it didn’t take long for us to settle on Elegant Trogon as the clear winner of the #1 bird we wanted to photograph.
According to the Tucson Water website, “The Sweetwater Wetlands is one of the most important functional, environmental, and educational components of the City of Tucson’s reclaimed water system. The facility was originally constructed in 1996 to handle backwash filter water from the reclaimed water plant. The wetlands now uses reclaimed water exclusively. The Sweetwater Wetlands has more than 2.5 miles of pathways accessible to visitors. Almost 1,000 feet of pathway is concrete surfaced and ADA-approved for wheelchair access.”
“Concrete surfacing allows easy access from the parking area to the main ramada, where visitors can overlook areas of both deep, open water and shallow water with emergent (bulrush/cattail) vegetation.”
We took our time leaving Buckeye because Google Maps ERRONEOUSLY listed the opening hours for Sweetwater Wetlands as 9:00 am EVERY DAY. To our dismay we discovered they actually are open from DAWN to DUSK every day EXCEPT MONDAY!.
Below are some of the image highlights from this stop. Overall we observed 32 species here with the highlights being Rich’s lifer Bell’s Vireo and Lucy’s Warbler. Ebird Checklist Link
On Monday, 5/9/22, Rich Brown and I (Jim Gain) rendezvoused in Turlock, CA to begin Operation PhotoTrogon. Our target lay deep in the canyons of the Santa Rita and Huachuca mountains in SouthEast Arizona. With plans to traverse the most treacherous terrain filled with cold-blooded reptiles, sharp-spined Saguaro and crafty Coati we departed before the break of dawn.
Counting gas, food and restroom stops, the drive to Tucson is long and tedious and the route options are limited. With an eye for not over-exerting ourselves and getting into an energy deficiency before we even start birding, we opted to stay the first night in Buckeye, a suburb just west of Phoenix. Given that the traffic was best after the morning commute, we decided to leave Turlock at 6:00 am. Our non-stop conversation about all of the exciting target birds we hoped to encounter made the first leg pass quite quickly and after checking in at the Holiday Inn, we went exploring to see what desert birds might be nearby. Looking over the nearby eBird hotspots, we chose the Robbins Butte WA and headed south of town.
First bird was a Eurasian Collared-Dove, and then a Mourning Dove and then more Mourning Doves. Then a dove with bold white racing stripes on its wings came flying by, our first White-winged Dove of the adventure. Then a Phainopepla was spotted, and then another one.
And then the first of two Greater Roadrunners hopped up along the side of the road, gave us a wary look, and then flew across the road and into a nearby Mesquite tree. Thoughts of “Roadrunner, the coyote is after you” and “BEEP, BEEP!” went through my head.
We found a small group of songbirds which included two female Wilson’s Warblers. After an hour we headed back to the Sundance Golf Course by the hotel hoping to catch some Lesser Nighthawks cruising the pond as we did back in January of last year.
As expected just at sunset, three Lesser Nighthawks suddenly appeared at the far end of the pond and we watched them until it got dark. An enjoyable and relaxing first afternoon of birding Arizona.
Con un BIP BIP BIP desagradablemente fuerte, mi alarma de las 5:00 am me despertó de un sueño profundo. La adrenalina se disparó instantáneamente y literalmente salté de la cama. Estaba seguro de que hoy me traería la especie Lifer número 700. Estaba en una visita de regreso a la mística península de Yucatán, que acababa de visitar un mes antes. Nuevamente solicité los servicios del experto en aves de Amar Aves, Miguel Amar Uribe y había reservado un tour de 6 días por la península. Miguel y Claudio López me habían recibido en el Aeropuerto Internacional de Cancún la noche anterior y manejamos (más bien Claudio manejó todo) hasta el pueblo de Río Lagartos para pasar la noche.
Abrí la puerta y miré al otro lado de la calle hacia el malecón y observé los botes turísticos meciéndose suavemente con el agua y pude escuchar a las olas contra ellos. Me quedé con 683 lifer pájaros, siendo mi último lifer un Colibrí Garganta Negra en la Isla de Cozumel en diciembre del año pasado (2021). La lista de posibles aves de vida en esta área era asombrosa y con visiones de exóticos colibríes, coloridos trogones y extravagantes flamencos en mi cabeza, deambulé por el malecón, tratando de tener una idea de cuán espectacular sería el día. A las 5:30, Miguel, Claudio y yo nos unimos con “Chino” Santiago Contreras y salimos a explorar los bosques cercanos con planes de regresar para hacer un recorrido en bote por la bahía al mediodía. Además de ser uno de los observadores élite de aves de la región, Chino sería nuestro capitán del bote para el recorrido por el Parque Natural Ría Lagartos.
Avance rápido hasta nuestra llegada de regreso a Río Lagartos, después de haber marcado a los Lifers # 695 Matraca Yucateca (Yucatan Wren) y # 696 Colibrí Canelo (Cinnamon Hummingbird).
Nos detuvimos brevemente en la casa de los colibríes en la Calle 17 para ver docenas de colibríes mexicanos (lifer #697) y colibríes canela.
Cuando abordamos el bote de Chino para comenzar nuestro recorrido por la bahía, teníamos muchas fragatas, cormoranes y gaviotas reidoras volando a nuestro alrededor.
Navegamos alrededor de la bahía poco profunda adyacente a Río Lagartos observando una variedad de aves playeras y garzas con una breve vista de un Rascón Costero del Atlántico (Clapper Rail).
Continuamos nuestro viaje lento a lo largo de las orillas del río cuando Claudio de repente grita “¡Garza Tigre Mexicana!” Chino guió hábilmente el bote mientras flotábamos hacia un hermoso pájaro que actuaba como si no estuviéramos allí. Después de varias docenas de fotos, salimos en busca de mi próximo lifer.
En este punto, la bahía se estrechaba más como un río con vegetación que se elevaba a cada lado. Primero escuchamos, y luego vimos un Aguililla Negra Menor (Common Black Hawk) #699. Pudimos ver y fotografiar primero un pájaro inmaduro y luego un adulto. ¡CASI AL #700!
Cuando doblamos una curva, el paisaje se abrió y ante nosotros en la distancia había una veintena de pájaros vivos #700, también conocidos como FLAMENCOS AMERICANOS.
Chino fue muy considerado en no molestar de ninguna manera estas magníficas maravillas de la naturaleza, pero mi lente de 500 mm me acercó lo suficiente como para tomar algunas buenas fotografías.
En ese momento, el sol comenzaba a ponerse bajo en el horizonte bañando a los flamencos en una cálida luz brillante.
Mientras nos dirigíamos de regreso a Río Lagartos, estaba exhausto y emocionado al mismo tiempo. ¡Qué gran aventura, y esto fue solo el primer día!