Arizona’s Santa Rita Mountains
7 July 2009
The clock strikes midnight as I continue driving southward. Most everyone is apparently in bed now. The rare truck or car is just enough to remind my weary brain to concentrate on the road. I try not to think of cool sheets waiting in a motel reserved a few miles north of Green Valley. Little of interest is on the radio. Earlier, in the darkness, when I picked up the car, I gratefully found the headlight switch. Hurtling southward, I think of the CD I had recorded of most of my target birds. Briefly, I fumble for the CD and then realize I cannot let my eyes or hands wander over the dimly lit dashboard on the slim chance of finding a slimmer CD slot. Boredom and hunger set their hooks into my tiredness. I look for a place to eat. Nothing is open except a gas station store, the kind that sells gas out front and green hot dogs and overpriced snacks in the back. Desperate, I buy a deli sandwich, said to be fresh, a carbonated drink for the caffeine and a package of small donuts. I wonder when “fresh” was, while checking the sandwich for any blues or greens and sniff it for any bacterial smokestacks. The donuts look like the ones I regularly bought when I birded across the U.S. in 1962. Amazingly, they taste the same. Could they be? Linda’s will not be pleased. It is too bad my metabolism does not handle them the way my slim 18-year-old body did. I envisage my future, hiking up canyons as the donuts pop in my mouth, leaving no one the wiser.
One thought keeps me awake. Soon, I see the Santa Rita Mountains. The range, one of the sky islands in Arizona extends roughly north and south for about 25 miles. In a short while, I would find the road to the Santa Rita Research Station and the trail up Florida Canyon in the foothills of the Santa Rita Mountains. In the foothills of the Santa Rita Mountains, somewhere, I trust, will be a Rufous-capped Warbler just waiting for me to add to my ABA life list.
Arrival in Santa Cruz Valley a few miles north of Green Valley during the wee-hours prevents a gaze at the inspiring Santa Rita Mountains. They are the last mountains and the last place in Arizona that Linda and I birded in 2005. Two months after returning to Oregon, we are devastated by news of wildfires in the region. We monitored the fire and later the birds of the Santa Rita Mountains for months to come. Fortunately, the fire did not reach the interior of beloved Madera Canyon and its denizens of flycatchers, hummingbirds and our special tanager.
It is a 2 a.m. arrival at my motel about five miles north of Green Valley. Even so, I’m up at six; eat a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, yogurt, apple juice and a little coffee provided free by the generous motel. Unlike the museum days with a bird specimen in one hand and a coffee mug in the other, the caffeine no longer works favorably. I am already stimulated; a half of a cup is more than enough. As for the bacon, a commodity never kept at home, I promise myself I’ll walk it and those little round donuts off today.
Unsure of just how much water I will need, I load the backpack full of bottles, head south a few interstate miles, and then up a familiar route from Green Valley to Continental and East White House Road toward Madera Canyon. I detour from the Madera Canyon by taking a wash-boarded dirt road, the Box Canyon Road, to Road 62, the one leading to the Santa Rita Work Center. This is the place above the well-known Florida Wash where bird-finding guides recommend stopping before going on up Madera Canyon Road. It is not far from the campsite of William McCleary of McCleary Wash fame. He was a late Nineteenth Century miner and rancher, who had had claims to the infamous Rosemont Mine in 1885, sold them, and flash forward, the region, on the northeast side of the mountains, is under heated controversy. Seems copper mining may rear its ugly head there. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, McCleary was not wealthy from mining and eventually did better at fence building and working as custodian to what is now the Santa Rita Experimental Range. The designated site is the first of its kind created in 1902 by Presidential Proclamation under, whom else, Teddy Roosevelt. Presidential Proclamations by Teddy caused the creation of 18 national parks and monuments, national forests, countless national wildlife refuges and other protected public land totaling 234 million acres. The experimental range, first called a forest reserve, encompassed almost 600 square miles, with portions of the region being overgrazed desert grasslands of which recovery was a goal. Now only 80 square miles are in the range. The workstation, with offices and bunks, is near the mouth of Florida Canyon. Many of the original buildings are gone; sixteen remain. The station is administered by the Coronado National Forest and some buildings leased by the University of Arizona’s College of Agriculture that currently helps oversee research on the range.
I head for the dam built across Florida Canyon that was to help provide a water supply for staff working at the station. Before getting there, a Greater Roadrunner actually runs on the road. The coolness of the morning is a perfect time to have the windows down. I listen intently for Botteri’s Sparrow and not far from the beginning of Box Canyon Road and I hear one singing between the tires bumping on the washboard road. Soon, I count at least three more Botteri’s Sparrows and find one sitting in a bush twenty feet off the road. What a plain little brown bird. Number 629, this is my first new ABA bird on the trip. Surprisingly to me, I never hear Cassin’s Sparrows but one flies directly in front of the car slowly enough to reveal its rounded, white-tipped tail. In plainness, it ranks close to the Botteri’s Sparrow.
From home, I had been monitoring reports of a singing Rufous-capped Warbler up Florida Canyon just above the work center. Besides the Rufous-capped Warbler, a Five-striped Sparrow had been reported up Florida Canyon. Maybe some of the other Arizona target species are there also.
I reread my explicit instruction copied earlier from the web: “There’s a brick colored metal sign pointing to the trail. Continue up the trail, which parallels work center until you reach next metal sign with similar names trails & saddles. At this point, all trails head up toward the left, but you want to go right down to the Florida Canyon drainage itself. There’s a new wire gate on way up the trail that may require strength to close. Please make sure you close this gate. You are also near the upstream end of the Work Center at this point. From here, begin hiking up the main drainage (which is the only one containing running water). Note there is no trail from this point up to where warblers were observed. If you continue up the wet drainage, you eventually come to surprisingly large dam, which supplies water to Work Center. Once on top of the dam, look upstream & you will see a large, lone sycamore within the drainage. A warbler pair was first detected about 100 m. or so above this sycamore next to drainage but within a dense stand of high shrubs.” My notes state The Five-striped Sparrow was reported slightly further up the canyon.
There is another car is at the parking lot, just outside the gate of the work center and at the trailhead. Before I take a step, John, from Belgium returns. He was looking for the warbler, but instead of walking up the streambed, he stayed on the trail. I relay the information about hiking up the streambed, but he leaves. Now, it is after 7 a.m. and my first day of July in Arizona is beginning. I quickly understand needing plenty of water. The sun peaks over the ridge and bores into the canyon. I hear a Black-capped Gnatcatcher before I get to the wire gate. It is true. Closing it requires some strength. It is a toss-up. Place the pole of the gate in the loop of wire on the fence with my right arm, the one ineffectually shot with cortisone by a hurried medical professional a month ago or use my left appendage smarting from arthritis in my thumb and adjoining finger. I use both and the thought of the warbler overrides any pain I might otherwise experience. Getting up the streambed requires ample rock hopping. Any possibility of slick rocks or getting wet is entirely moot. Water barely trickles down the dyeing creek. The hot sun and scrubby riparian growth has used up any water that was there when the detailed instructions were written. Just below the concrete dam, a large hummingbird, or at least larger than the Broad-billed Hummingbirds I’m seeing along the trail, slowly forages on what appears to be insects. It has a definite malar and eye stripe, with noticeable white spots on the side of the rump. It turns. It is a male Plain-capped Starthroat that silently disappears into some dense foliage. In few more feet and hundreds of round bowling ball sized rocks in the creek bed get me to the dam. Nearly hidden by flourishing pale green deciduous plants somehow growing from the gravely Florida Canyon, the aged dam is possibly 15 feet high. The concrete structure anchors into a natural rock wall on the right side of the creek. The rock provides handholds for an easy overhand climbing to the top. If there ever was space for water behind the dam, it had long been filled by sand and rocks, many too heavy to lift. Parts of the streambed reveal worn paths, places between the round water eroded rocks that are filled with pebbles and sand, now flattened by possibly hundreds of birders seeking the current holy grail of warblers. The big sycamore above the dam is warbler silent as is the thick bushes nearby. The liquid song of a Canyon Wren charges the summer air. Further, up the streambed, I get a brief look at my first Five-striped Sparrow. It disappears in a flash, but somewhere up the canyon wall, I hear its song. The species is said to have a large song repertoire, but the bird’s song in Florida Canyon is similar to my CD played on the drive from the motel. There is little need to chase down the sparrow, I hope, since surely more will be seen on a trek into California Gulch scheduled in a couple of days.
Unbelievably, time creeps past noon. My focus on the warbler is not enough to avoid looking at other birds. After all, this is my first day in the candy store. Everything seems so new. There is no shade from the hotter noon sun and on the way back down the canyon, no warbler. Most of my water is gone and I can feel my blood sugar waning. Munching on a bite of beef jerky and a fist full of dried peanuts pulled from the small backpack furnishes the needed boost. A pair of fussing Varied Buntings noisily rummage along the canyon. They are new, they are my ABA life bird number 631 and I’m glad a male accompanies the drab female to make the obvious couple’s identification. I remember my first Painted Bunting was a lone female at Allan Cruickshank’s home in Florida in 1962. Allen, who worked to save the extinct Dusky Seaside Sparrow, told me it was his ambition to photograph as many bird species as possible. I wonder if he ever had a Varied Bunting or a Five-striped Sparrow in his lens. For about 20 minutes, I search the Florida Canyon for the starthroat that was foraging earlier. No luck. No luck? I had found four new lifers, one, the hummingbird is not currently reported for Florida Canyon or from the entire state. The starthroat is my second trip lifer, ABA number 630. Being the only one of its kind recently reported in Arizona makes me nervous. Who will believe it? Will someone think that because my time here is relatively short, I am creating species to pad my list? My hope is that someone else will see the rare hummingbird.
Dark clouds gathering up the canyon are looking ominous during the warblerless rock hop down the creek. Back at the parking lot, I drink some of the water left in the car. It is almost hot, but it is wet. Pretending it is a cup of some sort of clear tea, I try to figure out what went wrong with the warbler that got away. How did I miss it? So many other birders yesterday and days earlier had walked the canyon and found the Rufous-capped Warbler. I reread the instructions about the trailhead, going through the gate and walking right and “down” the Florida Canyon drainage. It is funny how different a site appears from a written description. I had no idea the gate is actually in the streambed. Once through the gate, you walk up the streambed. The instructions say down from the trail, when actually the route goes up the stream. In other words, it appears that one goes through the gate and continues up the streambed. I imagined a more open area, with a trail going down to some water. I thought the dam would be much taller than it really is, and a small reservoir might behind it. I was sure the sycamore would be more impressive, but the real sycamore is short and stunted. My route was on track, but the bird was just not cooperating.
The drive back to the pavement and up to Proctor Road parking area at the mouth of Madera Canyon is uneventful. My hope to see Montezuma Quail never lessens as I remind myself of two Arizona birders Linda and I met in 2005. They had been looking for the quail during 15 trips and in as many years. Missing them every time, they finally drove to the Davis Mountains in Texas where the species is apparently easier to find. Linda and I skipped the Davis Mountains during our big trip across parts of Texas and the southwest so Montezuma Quail is on my hit list. At Santa Rita Lodge, I stop to check their hummingbird feeders. It is relatively quiet. John from Belgium, with his wife and another couple, sit under an awning. I tell them about the starthroat. John wants to know exactly where and the man of the other couple gives me a hearty thumbs up. Clouds gather ever thicker and rain falls, at first lightly before the drops increase in size.
Ducking in the car, I drive down the canyon and out of the rain to Sahuarita, a small town north of Green Valley, where I had sent a general delivery package to myself. It contains the birder vest, tripod, heavy boot socks and assorted items such as industrial strength deodorant, items that might give pause to an airport security agent or unsuspecting birder. A starter for sourdough would be nice to have, but that would certainly set off airport alarms and where am I going to bake bread. A motel microwave? The box also contains a windshield visor, the kind you unfold and wrestle into position inside the vehicle. I wonder why the rental is missing one and wonder especially why the windshield washer is bone dry.
A nearby super Wal-Mart provides a place to buy water, a cheap Styrofoam ice chest, and food to get me through a couple of days. While checking out of the store, rain pours out of the sky onto the roof in a thunderous roar. I arrive at the exit door and realize a soaking is a choice to reject. In minutes, a man holding a fishing pole, hook, line and sinker, bolts from the wetness and through the open doorway. Gadzuks, there must be more water out there than I imagine.
Strong gusts whipped through the liquid sheets of rain. Ever so gradually, the wind and precipitation began tapering off as a partial clearing broke the hell bent storm that soon disappears. The Santa Rita Mountains are hidden, somewhere in the blacked eastward sky. Thunder is muffled now and I hurry the shopping cart to the hot, now steamy rental. I speed to the motel, stow food items in the small motel refrigerator freezer, and retrace the route back up Madera Canyon. This time I park at the amphitheater below Madera Kubo, a lodging area. Hummingbird feeders in front of the main building hold promise of a Berylline Hummingbird, but Broad-bills have the floor. Opposite the feeder, on the creek side, is the familiar little blue cabin. I hear a Flame-colored Tanager, quite possibly the same one we watched in 2005, singing loudly somewhere above the cabin. A few people are around, most hoping for a glance at the tanager. Someone tells me a bear is in the area and upstream a few yards two women are intently watching a tree. I hear loud crashing in the leaves accompanied by breaking limbs. Maybe it is the bear or Wild Turkeys seen earlier. Turkeys going to roost are amazingly noisy. A grunt, growl or gobble gave nothing to the story.
Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, also reported from the area are not to be found. Of course, a Streak-backed Oriole, seen at Madera Kubo in May this year is long gone. After such an amazing morning, the afternoon is slow. It is liferless, but I know there is more to come. After all the rain earlier, I thought Madera Creek would have been roaring. It is not. Maybe Proctor Road will be the place to see Montezuma Quail. It is not. After a half a mile of dirt road hardships on the little rental, I turn around, ford trickling Madera Creek, course through the Proctor Road parking lot once more and head back to the motel. Dusk is on its way. Eight Lesser Nighthawks forage above the road back to the interstate.
Before collapsing, I call Linda. Sam, her disabled son is visiting from his group home. Linda is busy with medications and care. She sounds tired, but asks lots of questions, asks about my safety and am I eating well. I don’t tell her about the mini-market sandwich, but I tell her about the new birds I am finding.
8 July 2009
The alarm wakes me up at 5 a.m. I skip the good but fattening breakfast, opting for a microwaved frozen burrito I bought yesterday. As usual, staying in a motel with a microwave and refrigerator pays off. I’m in the car by 6:10 and on the way to the border town of Nogales before driving 18 miles northeastward to Patagonia at the south end of the Santa Rita Mountains. Just south of the western town of around 800, on the north side of the highway, is a path leading to a fence. This is my target location. As I arrive near the picnic tables south of town, the suggested place to tie up your horse or park your car, four people walking south announce they know exactly where to search and I should join them. By the time I park and get out, with everything I need, water, insect repellent, camera, binocs, hat, and did I say water, the group of people are well down the road. The foursome is on the south side of the road. They must know something about the target species that I don’t, which, of course, is likely. I look down toward the ground once, and then turn around to check a pesky flycatcher, then again look ahead. The people are gone. Confused, I continue to hike down the road until I hear a loud “hey.” Some time, when I wasn’t looking, the birders went across the road and disappeared back into the bushes on the north side of the road. After crossing over to the opposite side, I realize they are pretty much where my notes indicate.
Now I hear the target, a male Sinaloa Wren, singing mightily from the thick foliage across the fence. This western Mexican wren, a brand new species for the ABA area, has been a resident to the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve of the Nature Conservancy since August 2008. A second bird made a brief appearance in Huachuca Canyon in April 2009. Much earlier, an unsubstantiated bird was seen along the San Pedro River in June 1989. Are these pioneers responding to climate change? The Patagonia bird is building a nest and is singing somewhere behind two metal no trespassing signs hanging on the fence wire. The nest, a round ball of pale brownish plant fibers is easily visible once you learn where to look. For several minutes the five of us are unable to locate the bird even though it is only a few feet away. Finally, it is found, but the thick foliage renders sightings impossible for everyone at the same time. Seeing it through the thick vegetation requires being aligned perfectly with the bird. In about thirty minutes, the foursome departs. I watch and wait, alone in the tall grass, just hungry chiggers, a sneaky wren and me. From 8-9:15 the female hopeless male visits the nest five times. Each time I get a look, some more fragmentary than others, but enough field marks tell me that this is indeed a Sinaloa Wren.
Someone on the web had warned birders that the similar Bewick’s Wren is abundant in the same patch claimed by the Sinaloa Wren. Southwestern Bewick’s Wrens are pale and grayish and are nothing like the darker and brownish subspecies further north. The local Bewick’s appear washed out compared to the browner Sinaloa Wren. It is wonderful to see, for myself, the prized wren. It is good to be reminded of the differences in coloration of Bewick’s Wrens. I’m again reminded of Allan Phillips and the museum, but from the thick understory the Sinaloa Wren’s singing reminds me how fortunate I am today. I did not consider I would be so lucky as to actually hear and see a new wren north of the border. The Sinaloa Wren is ABA 633, the fifth new species since arriving in Arizona barely two days ago.
The heat in the shade along the fence is modified considerably by the lush vegetation. It is the addition of humidity and worry of those chiggers lurking the tall grass that spurs me on to the Paton’s Hummingbird Haven feeders on the outskirts of Patagonia. These hummingbird feeders, in operation for decades, are just part of the spread that includes other feeders attracting woodpeckers to finches. Wally and Marion Paton originally maintained the feeders, but Wally passed away and Marion is sadly ailing. Most of the hard work of cleaning and filling feeders is left up to their son Robert. Numerous species occur on the tiny parcel of property, including my first Abert’s Towhee and Zone-tailed Hawk in 2005. A Violet-crowned Hummingbird is the best bird on this sizzling July date. Four years ago that hummingbird species became another lifer for Linda and me. Today seems an exception for firsts but one is always hopeful for a Cinnamon Hummingbird. One spiced up the hummingbird choir at Patons‘ feeders in July 1992. While delighting in today’s smorgasbord, I ask Robert about Thick-billed Kingbirds. He went inside for his binocs and met me and another birder in Paton’s front yard. We walk maybe 100 yards and search across the road. In seconds, I spot a Thick-billed Kingbird sitting quietly in the top of a pine. They really do have thick bills.
Rufous-capped Warblers have been reported as apparently breeding in the Patagonia-Sonoita Preserve. Because of a Mountain Lion sighting, the preserve had been closed for about a week or more and today is the first time it has been considered lion free. Most birders told me they think the closure was unnecessary. The Nature Conservancy preserve is just down the road from Paton’s Birder Haven. My arrival at the trailhead that might lead to the elusive warblers coincides with the thermometer reaching what fells like boiling. My wet cooling vest, stored in a plastic bag near the passenger side’s air conditioner vent is thoroughly chilled during the short jaunt from Hummingbird Haven. The vest offers significant relief to the hot moist air along the riparian edges of Sonoita Creek. The trail is deserted. The creek is cool and crystal clear. Lack of birds and the weather puts doubt that this trek is worthwhile. I quickly reach the “X” mark on my map, the place where the Rufous-capped Warblers were last seen, but the birds are lying low or are just not there. Before turning back, before the water in my cooling vest evaporates, I spot a Hooded Warbler, a bird found earlier by the birder at the Thick-billed Kingbird party.
Climbing into the rental is tantamount to stepping into an oven until the glorious air conditioner takes charge of the interior of the car. The heat has silenced all life. I drink more water, crank up the air and head back to Patagonia. Just short of leaving the reserve, I hear the Sinaloa Wren from the dirt road. The nest built by the wren is not many feet south of this narrow section of the Nature Conservancy property. Back on the highway I leave Patagonia and drive slowly past where the wren built the nest. I hear the loud wren again. A brief stop at the famous Patagonia Rest Stop is pointless in the scorching heat. For several miles, the Sinaloa Wren sings in my mind.
Although not in the bird finding guides, I am curious about a place called Hendrix Hummingbird Ranch. It is near the Santa Cruz River. I phone the number I copied into my itinerary. There is no answer. Deciding to go to the ranch anyway, I find the driveway, which turns out to be a sandy scrape about a mile back into thorn and bush. The two-wheel drive car struggles as it pulls me forward. Finally, at the ranch, I search for hanging hummingbird feeders described on the web. There are no feeders. I knock on the door. Jesse Hendrix slowly walks to the screen door of a rather large enclosed porch. Inside are hundreds of hummingbird feeders. Mr. Hendrix, who mentions the phones may be out, tells me that his bad health no longer makes it possible to feed “my birds.“ In fact, it had been many years. I mention his place is featured on the web. We agree that it is too bad that once on the web, forever on the web. He seems to enjoy the company, especially our conversation about hummingbirds, but I can see he is tiring. Wishing him the best, I depart.
Back in Madera Canyon, it is cool enough to hike, albeit slowly on roasted feet and hair matted under my new ball cap. No matter when or where, I manage to forget something. This time it is my usual brimmed birder hat, which, might have been too hot to wear anyway. That was all moot as I enter the shaded trail of the lower part of the Vault Mine Trail and onto the Carrie Nation Mine Trail where a birder found Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers. The trail follows Hopkins Fork, and it did produce Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, in glimpses and in sound. Squeaky toys are all around me, but these funny sounding flycatchers are being coy. At least I hear them better than the ones seen in Panama a few years ago.
Another goal is to find brown-throated House Wrens. Their song is similar to the regular, non-brown-throated House Wrens, the ones occurring throughout most of North America north of Mexico. However, the call notes of the two forms differ. It was not so long ago that the A.O.U., in 1957, considered there to be a House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) and a Brown-throated Wren (T. brunneicollis). A few years later, in 1960, the two were reported to freely interbreed. Taxonomic lumping was going around and soon the A.O.U. concludes the two wrens are one species. Allan Phillips, in volume 1 of his Known Birds, likewise treats the two types of wrens as conspecifics, and states that birds from southern Arizona have a trace of buff on their throats. What I am seeing today are birds with brown beyond a trace. I wish I could now discuss this with Allan. Of course, he would insist I have specimens. I am not the only one speculating about the taxonomic rank of the brown-throated wrens cavorting all around me. A 1996 paper on the genetics of northern (regular), brown-throated and southern House Wrens does show differences that are as great as many well accepted Nearctic species. After hearing the call notes of the Hopkins Fork brown-throated House Wrens my taxonomist side makes me anxious to look into the details of the systematics of these birds. My lister side makes me wonder just when I will be able to count the brown-throated birds as a full species. In the meantime, I mentally place them along with my list of potential species that include Tule White-fronted Goose, Red, Sooty, Slate-colored and Thick-billed Fox-Sparrows, Lilian‘s Meadowlark and other potential species I‘ve seen.
A few feet up the trail, I notice a black warbler. A closer look reveals white wing patches. What in the world is it? About the time, it dawns on my cooked brain an adult Painted Redstart begins to feed its black and white juvenile. Carrying water, camera and more water had caused me to elect not to bring the field guide. Thanks to the parent bird, I now know what I had forgotten. A few more steps and squeaky flycatchers later, I hear an Elegant Trogon calling. Their calls are not becoming to their feathers. They are the opposite of some of the more drab birds, such as thrushes, having some of the more beautiful songs.
Where the creek and trail intersect is a huge boulder. Sitting on top is a Tucson resident soaking in the sight of a trogon. I could not see the bird but appreciate its beauty. Linda and I saw several in Arizona in 2005 and more species of trogons that same year in Panama. I especially value these birds from days of curating the trogon collection at Smithsonian in 1984. At that time, the only accepted source available that the museum could use that treats all species of trogons was Peters Checklist of “Birds of the World” published in 1945. Using information more current than 1945, my job was to determine the correct scientific names of the taxa in the Trogon family and what might be the best linear sequence to arrange the species in the collection. Time was limited. The sequence was based on morphology, including back color of females, and studied intuition, techniques many predecessors employed. Finally, Dick Banks and I discussed the sequence. The last A.O.U. Check-list, published in 1998, actually followed my sequence for the first fives species listed, but the publication stopped there, placed the last three North American species at the end of the genus Trogon and slightly rearranged the sequence of the remaining species. I am not sure why. Eleven years later, now based on mostly genetic information, the last three species the A.O.U. had listed almost a dozen years earlier, the ones I placed in the middle of the sequence, are the first three species. The next five North American species continue to follow the sequence I originally determined and the last five, those including brown-backed females end the list, similar to the sequence I set in 1984. Like anything else, more study is required, especially as some subspecies have risen to species status. The unseen Arizona trogon could care less.
A hiking group of young twenty something birders that I had earlier driven past on the road coming up to the trail head catch up with me about the time I turn to go back to the car. By then, clouds are gathering and thunder is rumbling. I quicken my pace, watching for the scores of loose rocks on the trail. Going down is usually the most hazardous, the place where extra padding in the rear might be important. Perhaps the bacon and donuts have a purpose after all. Darkening clouds nearly engulf Mount Wrightson’s 9,453-foot summit. Just as I reach the door of the rental, buckets of rain pour from the bluish-black sky. I am half-soaked before I can get inside. Thinking it might stop any minute, I park at the amphitheater were someone said a pair of Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers are often seen perching over the creek. A bridge there should make getting a solid look at them relatively painless. However, the thunder becomes louder, the rain more dense, which is not possible, but it did. Gusts of wind chimes in and rock the car as I begin the descent out of the canyon. It is slow going, the windshield wipers churn at full speed. Low spots in the road are filling with water. Luckily, a car in front of me, one about the same size that I am driving, keeps going and helps me gage whether I should continue on or not. If it floats, I will hang back on higher ground. The washes I have to cross are not bad, yet, and the rain and wind loose power the closer I get to my motel off the interstate. The electricity is off. Fortunately, it had not been off long as my room is cool but dark. I nap. The lights come back on, waking me at 11 p.m. It is time for the microwave to nuke my dinner.
9 July 2009
Tire tracks on yesterday’s rain soaked road leading to the parking lot outside the Santa Rita Research Center look new. Near the parking lot, a vehicle exiting the station bumps down the road. Arrival at Florida Canyon is late because of my breakfast of eggs, a biscuit smothered in gravy speckled by bits of sausage, apple juice, a small yogurt and half a cup of coffee. It is to be late or savor the breakfast moment. Nonetheless, birder guilt is creeping in around the morning cobwebs. Being at the Florida Canyon trailhead at 7:30 a.m. is late but maybe it is not too late. First, crossing Florida Creek from the parking lot is almost a wet one. Fortunately, a few rocks in the middle are in the right place for hoping to the other side. The trail is wet in places, even muddy in a flat section. Reaching the wire gate is easier than yesterday. It is cooler hiking, but the water in the creek is too high to continue. Going up the creek and past the dam will be impossible without waders. Again, no Rufous-capped Warbler awards today.
On the drive down the road to pavement, I meet a couple on their way to Florida Canyon. We stop in the middle of the road, turn off our engines and chat. They are thinking of trying for the warbler. The two are permanent travelers and hosts at various National Wildlife Refuges, mostly in the West. I tell them about the high water, but recommend they look the creek over before abandoning a hunt for the warbler. A pair of Pyrrhuloxias and a blooming barrel cactus mixed in by Botteri’s and Cassin’s Sparrows are worthy stops. Low dips in Madera Canyon Road contain sand and debris washed across the road from yesterday’s deluge. Parking again at the Amphitheater is barely accessible since rushing water deeply eroded the soil and gravel at the edge of the pavement. The hike from the Amphitheater to the hummingbird feeders in front of Madera Kubo is easy. Perhaps all that rock hopping is getting me in better shape. Two birders, leaving their vigil at Kubo tell me Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, Arizona Woodpeckers and a Berylline Hummer were frequenting the feeders there. Were? That operative word did not quell my enthusiasm, but the sound of a tractor scraping a front-loading blade across pavement did. Richard Lansky, who, with wife Cora, runs Madera Kubo and who Linda I met in 2005, is removing the storm debris from the narrow road in front of the main house and the little blue house next to the creek. The sound of the operation sends most everything scurrying, especially the hummingbirds. Between tractor revs and metal scraping along pavement, I hear the squeaky toy calls of two Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers. I finally get to stare at one. Although common summer birds to the canyon, they are nothing but neat to a northern birder. To escape the tractor noise, I walk up the steep road. A couple of Mexican Jays and a Flame-colored Tanager are there. The tanager seems to have turned up its loud volume even more, as if competing with the clamor of the tractor.
In my haste to get to the feeders, I forget to leave my old fart pass on the dash. It is the one called a Senior Pass or, on the back, “The National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass,” which gives us older ilk free visitation to a host of places including national parks, refuges and forests. By now, after so many visits to Madera Canyon, I had saved a bundle with that pass. A forest service ranger is pulling out of the parking lot. I flag him down, figuring I may have a ticket and hope to do some fast-talking. Seems he is in a hurry and did not take time to write me up.
Madera Creek washed through the Proctor Road ford with a vengeance. Just yesterday, my street sedan had no trouble fording the stream, but today a high clearance vehicle might have trouble. Turning around, I barely hear a Bell’s Vireo singing over the swift water. Again, no Montezuma Quail at the Proctor Road parking lot. A toad or frog living under a cattle guard near the entrance of the lot sounds off each time a vehicle goes over the metal cattle guard rails. It is not the croak or rivet I expected, but a sound actually not unlike tires hurrying over the rails of the cattle guard. Only after hearing the amphibian sans a vehicle was I sure I am not hearing things.
Following a rest at the motel, I enter the only McDonald’s in Green Valley where I order a burger, a small strawberry Sunday and wait. Melody Kehl, an Arizona guide, will be arriving at 2:30 p.m. for a trip into Pajarito Mountains and California Gulch.