Southwestern Winter to A Gulf Coast Spring
Our drive along the ridge back to the pavement of Arivaca Highway on New Year’s Day is somber. Last night the temperature dipped to around 20 degrees and prospects of warmer times to come are not part of the NOAA weather forecast.
1-8 January 2015
It is too cold today and leaving Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge is disheartening. The hard packed dirt road crunches loudly as we lumber to the highway, smashing ice crystals formed in the rain puddles of the beginning of New Year’s Eve. A Loggerhead Shrike and a small flock of unidentified meadowlarks look on.
As we turn west onto the highway, Linda asks what is our destination. I answer. “Why.”
“What? I would like to know where we might light for the night.”
Wondering why the question since we had talked about our route earlier that will take us north to the Ajo Highway whereupon we would head west across the vast Tohono O’odham Nation. The reservation is the size of Connecticut ranking it the second largest Native American site in the United States.
Without answering Linda, I ponder our destination just west of the reservation and Linda asks again, where we might stay.
“Come on, what is the big secret?”
“Why do you think there is a secret?
“Okay. Where will our back yard be tonight?
The road is narrowing, which requires greater concentration keeping our RV in our designated lane and causing me not to hear the entire last question. I reply. “What? Oh, Why is where we are going.”
Linda asks if I had forgotten my grammar and she wonders why I cannot answer the name of our destination. We are going west to a campground south of very small town south of Ajo. “That is Why.”
Linda responds. “That would seem to be more how than why. What are you talking about?”
I look to my right and see perplexing looks from Linda. “No, it is not how, but Why.” The name of the small town south of Ajo is Why.”
Linda smiles. “What is the name of the small town?
My answer is Why. The name of the small town is Why. Do not ask me why.”
Linda opens the map and says she sees Why. From then on, we were speaking on the same page and were just south of Why. The hamlet of Why shares a small section of Arizona with slightly larger Ajo, a copper mining town whose main source of income stopped when the mine closed in the 1980s. The O’odham reservation, a huge military landscape named for Barry Goldwater and Organ Pipes National Monument surrounds the small section of the state that is home to Ajo and Why.
Within the Why and Ajo piece of land is BLM land. Why we drove south of Why is to spend a few days at the Gunsight Campground, a BLM region set aside for dispersed camping. The grounds seem vast, with various sizes of RVs parked far from each other in a probable attempt for privacy in the remote desert setting. A few saguaro cactus punctuate a flat sandy land of mesquite and a few unidentified xerophytes. We find a spot near the bank of the wash, which is about at least a quarter-mile wide. Our site would not be safe during summer lest a flash flood spill over the steep banks, but it is winter and thunderstorms are highly unlikely.
From our new location south of Why, we are now west of the Baboquivari Mountains. Thinking back, Linda and I felt comfort when Baboquivari was in view. The important landmark, although not exceptionally high in elevation is also a feature of the landscape from Tucson southward.
Our passage to the refuge and yet closer to the eastern face of Baboquivari left an impression. Stopping at Arivaca exposed us to history apparently beyond written record. According to a flier from a proud storekeeper, Arivaca was first Aribac, which means a little well used by Indians and early Spanish explorers in the 1400s. Silver was discovered in 1736. In the late 1870s, more silver lured enough prospectors to create a town, which was officially Arivaca. A post office was established in 1878. The town, reached by dirt road for decades, was occupied by 695 hardy souls in 2010. That is Arivaca in a nutshell, and we noticed besides a rich history, town’s people were eagerly looking out for one another by offering rides, carrying things, relaying news and more. That same hospitality extended to us when we had to rid ourselves of several days of refuse.
Certain people do not appreciate the importance of protected land such as acreage administered by BLM and other government lands. We noticed what seemed slightly anti-refuge attitudes while at Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. Those that may resent the refuge apparently have yet to appreciate the tourist dollar from hunters and people watching wildlife, especially birders. The vast refuge did not come in existence until 1985 when a historic ranch became the only such federal facility to restore and protect the only Sonoran savanna grassland in the U.S. Like many refuges, hunting is permissible. Unlike most refuges, regions within the refuge allow hunting almost anything that moves, including deer, antelope, bear, pigs and more. Also unlike most refuges, Buenos Aires allows camping. Camping in the refuge, with Baboquivari in view, is something we look forward to repeating, but maybe when most of the hunters are gone and temperatures are not so chilling.
During our stay west of the refuge, we spend a night in a BLM campground near Ajo. Birding is uneventful, but what Linda and I believe are surely two Mexican wolves lope by our parking site. We realize that we are far from their northern range, but a aware of their relatives traveling from Idaho, through part of western Oregon and into northern California.
We begin tallying bird names for the 2015 year list. Caracara atop a saguaro in Tohono O’odham Nation was welcoming. Birding during the first couple of days at Gunsight Wash are not particularly inspiring until Linda suggests we toss a few handfuls of birdseed below a greasewood bush in view of our front window. The seed is leftovers from when I stopped feeding last spring in Oregon. Last spring the food went to mostly juncos and Golden-crowned Sparrows. Now, White-crowned Sparrows and House Finches dominate the fodder, but there are Green-tailed and Canyon towhees, Northern Cardinal, Gila Woodpecker, Gambel’s Quail and Curve-billed Thrasher. The woodpecker especially liked a grapefruit we cut open. There is never a dull moment with so many species foraging in our view. Especially amazing is the ease in which the thrashers dig into the soil with side-to-side swipes of their curved bills.
9-13 January 2015
Thanks to BLM, we spent more nights at several campgrounds, excluding the one noisy stay on a Wal-Mart parking lot in Yuma, our last stop in Arizona for a few days.
14 January 2015
We arrive at the below sea-level headquarters of Sony Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. This is the first time at the refuge when the temperature is low enough for a walk to the water. The best birds are a couple of Abert’s Towhees and an Inca Dove. Loafing gulls at the shore include mostly Ring-billed Gulls, but I locate at least two California and one Herring Gull. A large flock of cormorants resting on an island in a freshwater lake harbors a large white gull that eventually flies to the shore of the sea. It clearly is an adult Yellow-footed Gull.
15 January 2015
The road to Red Rocks accommodates the RV to the boat landing, which is high and dry for launching even a tiny skiff. Gulls are loafing at the edge of the salty lake, but are too far for practical identification. A walk out toward them is risky since being stuck in the mud or flushing the birds is likely. However, by stopping to scope every six to ten feet and then walking slowly toward the unwary gulls allows for closer inspection. Among the Ring-billed Gulls is a small gull. Its body is smaller than the foraging Black-necked Stilts. The top and back of the gull’s head is blackish as are its coverts. Putting the pieces together easily adds up to be a first winter Little Gull. Coming to the Salton Sea is paying for the trip, with the Little Gull as ABA 692. I email Guy McCaskie, guru of the sea, about the gull. Linda and I last saw Guy on these shores in 2005. He said he would look for the gull and asked for details of my observation.
Trail near headquarters Boat ramp
One nagging thought not sent to Guy is that somewhere I had seen a bird exactly like the Little Gull today. Perhaps I did see a Little Gull in some past birding foray, but was either too ignorant or too rushed to nail down its identification. Little Gulls seem to occur sporadically almost anywhere in ABA land. Did I see a Little Gull in by younger birding days? The inability to remember bygone years is teasing my desire to remember more than I am capable. Could this be the beginning of more lapses, the dreaded loss of memory beginning with a short-term recollection? Is birder dementia in the future? In the current situation, I know I saw a Little Gull, but cannot remember, with certainty, that I saw one previous years ago. Once again, is it a case of a failing aging brain? Yes, I am repeating myself, which is another sign of brain drain. At least there is now a written record that I saw a Little Gull.
16 January 2015
Linda and I revisit Red Rocks, but Guy and the gull are not present. I read later that Guy did not find the Little Gull, but he did identify a Thayer’s Gull in first winter plumage. Dick Banks and I once attempted to sort out what Thayer’s Gulls might represent. Dick, replying to my email about Guy’s Thayer’s wrote he did not believe in immature Thayer’s. Having the pleasure of a long association with Dick, I have an idea what he meant. First, Dick was speaking with tongue in cheek. He was not necessarily questioning Guy’s powers of deduction. Nonetheless, one has to wonder about identifying a gull in first winter plumage, especially one that shares characteristics with other species and with hybrid gulls. I am unsure how many characters Guy found that separate his bird from so many possibilities, but I am well aware that Guy has more field time and expertise than do I. Did he see every character needed to rule out other species and hybrids, and did he submit a report to the California committee that will convince the players that he saw an unequivocal immature Thayer’s Gull? I trust he did. Certainly, if I were a member of the committee, I would accept his finding.
A drive up the east shore of Salton Sea has prospects, but topping the Little Gull with a new ABA species is remote. Ivory Gull has visited southern California and what if a … Linda and I tried to find access to the beach at Niland, but our only loafing gulls that are reasonably visible rest at Bombay Beach. Nothing looks unusual among the Ring-billed and California Gulls. What is unusual is Bombay Beach itself that, because of periodic flooding and a hurricane, appears post-apocalyptic. Linda imagines a movie, seasoned with fantasy and pathos, of a place once thriving and now marked by sudden premature death. She is close to the truth. I expect a young Mel Gibson and Tina Turner to roar up in homemade vehicles to fight off the bad guys who kill and steal from the good guys. Mad Max and Thunderdome are history and so are many homes on the seaward side of a maybe 12-foot dike built to protect the settlement from drowning water. Graffiti on the dead shells of abandoned homes tell some of the story of this circa 1950 settlement that was apparently to be a Palm Beach, but with water. A few hardy people today have homes in Bombay Beach, with some more maintained than others. In addition to the obvious problem of keeping properly moisturized, the heat in summer is oppressive; the air smells of dead fish and chemicals, and that fresh water is gold and the lake shares space with the famous San Andreas Fault Line.
Ruins at Bombay Beach Salton Sea at Mecca Beach
Since the mid-Twentieth Century, besides widespread flooding, especially in the 1970s, the water of Salton Sea has become 25% saltier than the Pacific Ocean and far nastier than that body of water. Agriculture endeavors, mainly at the southern and northern ends of Salton Sea, with seeds sowed in irrigated parts of Imperial Valley where the accidentally created lake appeared in the 1900s. The lake, once a tourist haven for swimming and boating, does not have an outlet and has only three inlets from usually dry rivers and drainage from the vast fields of vegetables ranging from alfalfa, spinach and other multi-syllable vegetables kids will not eat. Drainage of irrigation water from the fields contains salt and chemicals we try to wash from our lettuce and other plant crops lest we become sick and die. The amount of salt and other chemicals in Salton Sea in a matter of years, possibly in our lifetimes, will become so poisonous that fish and invertebrates cannot live. Birds will not be able to thrive and eventually people will have to move as a dry lakebed of poison blows into the lungs of any animal foolish enough to witness the maelstrom.
Sonny Bono aspired to save the Salton Sea before his untimely death. He is honored for seeing the big picture necessary to protect such a unique habitat. Proposals to save Salton Sea range from vacuous to possibly workable solutions that may approach human ability. It may be too late. Whatever will happen is in the shadow of the umbrella of political and economic interest mostly related to agriculture and water, but competes with sensible long-term goals for the ecological welfare of the region. There might be a realization that something must transpire, but sacrifices just do not seem practical. Those seeing the big picture know that there must be compromises, but the debate on the ways and means of a positive outcome will likely continue until no Little Gull in its right mind would set foot in manmade hell that could be a haven to so much wildlife.
17 January 2015
Our arrival at Mecca Beach, part of the Salton Sea State Recreation Area presents a different feel of the lake. The scene appears to be a mountain lake, with high ridges providing a shadow for the sunset. A quick walk reveals the usual gull suspects, but with the exception of one small gull, that, owing to its wing pattern, is a Bonaparte’s Gull. The beach is deep with millions of barnacle shells from animals introduced decades ago from pontoon planes originating from the Pacific Ocean. Skeletons of dead fish mark what will probably be the future.
19 January 2015
Before leaving Mecca Beach, we chase down a Bonaparte’s Gull. It is possibly the same one seen yesterday, but this time it is more than a fly-by. The bird, an adult, has a noticeably dark wash on the top and back of the head, thus resembling a winter Little Gull. However, in all other characters, the gull fits the characteristics of a winter adult Bonaparte’s Gull.
Deciding to camp at the southern campground in Joshua Tree National Park, we drive north through the arid and highly eroded Orocopia Mountains. Our route on Box Canyon Road is amazing, but it also is full of campers, many of whom are shooting guns. Anyone who has seen an old western movie knows that box canyons, of which the region is replete, goes hand in hand with cattle rustling and plenty of gunplay. The national park will be quieter, but a ranger turns us away. The campground and all other campgrounds in the park are at capacity this three-day Martin Luther King weekend. Maybe we should have phoned ahead, but we did not. Going back to the modern rustler hideout is not an option. We park on a pull off, but about midnight, a ranger rousts us out of bed. She says she will let it pass with a verbal warning that we are illegally parking. I slip on enough clothes to drive down the road to just the other side of a large sign welcoming visitors to the park. All is well until a man knocks on our back door about four am and yelling “hello Oregon.” He laments that he fell asleep at the wheel and ran over some rocks that punctured a tire. He asked if we have a jack that he might borrow. Although we have a spare tire, we do not have a jack since the tire is much too large and heavy for me to lift. Our owner’s manual states that in case of a flat we should call a towing service. We do not have a jack to lend. At daylight, we realize there is BLM camping only yards to the south.
After the night of sleep interruptess, it is prudent we stay put for the night. The next camp, now that the long weekend is over and based on a spur of the moment decision, is Jumbo Rocks Campground. The site is in the northern part, the Mojave Desert part, of Joshua Tree Nation Park. This is Linda’s first time to witness Joshua Trees. As for the campground, the huge boulders of gneiss, some weathered vertically, others horizontally, are amazing. Many have sharp angles at the point of fractures, with rounded corners, and with some so round as to allow rolling into one another. Some of the boulders are three to four stories high. The huge piles of truly jumbo rocks appear surreal, particularly to us as we camp among and beneath the giants. On 20 January, I walk about a mile on a trail meandering between the boulders where a Canyon Wren flies to the edge of the path and then back into the rocks. Rock Wrens are not in short supply. Back home, our campsite, Crissal Thrashers are dominate big birds and share the position with a lone Le Conte’s Thrasher. Both species are singing. I cannot recall when I last saw a Le Conte’s Thrasher. A solitary Western Scrub-Jay skulks near a table and a Spotted Towhee scratches under one of the gray bushes called spiny cotton.
24 January 2015
Since leaving Joshua Tree, our nights have included overnight at a motel (good for laundry and baths) and a Wal-Mart parking lot (good for convenience to shopping and it was free). Today is one last attempt to search for unusual gulls. Just perhaps there is an Ivory Gull waiting discovery. Our last hunting ground is on the western shore. First, we tour a beach at Salton Sea, the town. Fortunately, there are at least a couple of Yellow-footed Gulls among the usual suspects of Salton Sea gulls this time of year. The Yellow-foot is a brand new bird for Linda. Checking and re- checking the accessible flocks of loafing gulls does not reveal an Ivory Gull, a Thayer’s or any other type of unusual avian wildlife. One longspur/pipit lured me away from the gulls. Whatever it was, it disappeared into the shore.
The loss of homes in Salton Sea is similar to that of Bombay Beach, but the town of Salton Sea apparently recovered and actually has many newer homes built high and dry from the fickle water levels of the Salton Sea. The wrecked homes of both towns remain as reminders of high water. That so many of those homes remain cluttering the beaches are testimony to the high and likely unavailable expenditures to remove what remains from the devastation. The homes also serve as monuments to a life once lived. That the properties are not reoccupied suggest collective intelligence should prohibit rebuilding in flood zones, something yet to be fully appreciated in most regions of the country.
Upon returning to the south shore, we decide to chance a rousting from parking on the property of the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge tonight. Specifically, our night begins after a dozen or so cars and suv’s fill the parking area of Unit One at the southernmost shore of Salton Sea. The vehicles, driven by members of a refuge sponsored tour group, are about a half mile away and converged along the dirt road near foraging Sandhill Cranes. The possibility that the participants were enjoying a look at a Common Crane crept into my imagination. No unusual cranes fill the time as we wait for everyone to depart, leaving us to fulfill our illegal options of parking overnight next to a sign that clearly states that there is to be no camping and that the refuge opens after sunrise and closes at sunset. We rationalize. We are not actually camping. We are parking. Further, a theater may close, a store may close, but such establishments have on and off switches. Lights go out, employees go home, but a refuge lives on, day and night. It never closes.
25 January 2015
There is something magical in spending a night in a wildlife refuge. I had the fortune of that many times during my 1962-63 trip. It may have been illegal then too, but regardless, the sound of calling birds during the night is not forgettable. In those early days, managers were fine with me staying overnight. Of course, the kid phase of life is far behind us and policies change. Were any animals harmed during our nocturnal visit? We set no campfires, deposited no trash and kept our noise to a whisper. The general answer is it is unlikely our presence caused even minor distress. Would there be harm if the area became an overnight destination for visitors? Yes.
Our night brought us wonderful sounds of geese, an occasional duck, Black and Ridgway’s Rails, the vocalizations of silly coots and the slightly fancier relative, Common Gallinule, to our slumberous ears. The loud knock of an official rousting that would cause us to move during the middle of the night never comes. Only the soft sounds of two humans arriving before sunrise remind that this is a place to share. At that time, I slip out the back door to witness the awakening of the marsh.
From a wooden platform several yards from the parked RV the sun, yet to top the horizon dimly lights a strange mass of ducks swirling above the open water to the west. They appear confused, flying in an unorganized circle with no place to go. The mass slowly diminished in number, with birds peeling away in all directions and the majority settling back to the water. Thousands of Snow Geese set alert among the quacking Mallards and squealing and whistling pintails, teal and shovelers. From time to time bunches of geese, ranging from 50 to 100, sometimes more, explode to the air and fly toward the sun, which is the direction of most of the grassy fields they will forage. Many fly directly overhead. A few are calling. There are so many flocks in the air that the few calling birds dominate the sound of the marsh. It is loud and magnificent. Solitary Black-crowned Night Herons fly in silence. Next, I see White-faced Ibis. Thousands are flying into the marsh. Where were they earlier? Further away are White Pelicans taking wing toward Salton Sea. Thankfully, the sun is now above the horizon since the freezing air has long since penetrated my hoody.
Not far beyond the majority of geese are Sandhill Cranes. Their trumpeting calls are louder and louder as birds jump to the air. Their deep wing beats contrast to the faster and shallower beats of the ibis. With the increased light, Marsh Wrens venture to singing perches and Northern Harriers sail in their vicinity. More Snow Geese are skimming overhead. How many more geese does the marsh hide? I continue to see ibis land in the marsh vegetation. They disappear although visible there are white egrets, Cattle, Great and Snowy. Overflights of the cranes increase. Many of the grand birds are so close that I can look into their eyes. We all should be grateful to Sony Bono.
From California, we headed to our beloved Madera Canyon and Bog Springs Campground. Unseasonable rain begins falling, thus dashing anything but a most soggy birding sojourn. I never left the campground. It was nice to see Mexican Jay and Bridled Titmouse again, but seeing the usual suspects at the lodge feeding station would have to wait. On the first day of February, we picked up Sam who we would sandwich inside the RV and take him to see some Arizona desert. Despite his multiple handicaps, he nonetheless wanted to visit the desert museum. We arrived too late for the raptor show and the day was wearing for everyone. About that time, I realize I have some sort of bug. We camp at Gilbert Ray where the Curve-billed Thrashers are singing, not just calling as our earlier time there. I look forward to two nights at Bog Springs, but the body keeps me in camp.
In the meantime, Guy McCaskie and others are finding several interesting gulls at Salton Sea. Among them are Lesser Black-backed Gull, more Thayer’s, Herring and western Gulls. Bonaparte’s Gull is also among the larids, but no one rings in a Little Gull. Guy never replied with a positive or negative comment on my Little Gull. A plethora of gulls escaped identification during years of watching, but the Little Gull I saw was not one of them.
8 February 2015
We drive west from Sky Harbor Airport in the early afternoon negotiating a route to Encanto Park. It is a small park, approximately 5 X 8 city blocks square and surrounded by residences, some standing since 1900. Arizona had yet to become a state, and the dominant bird was not European Collared-Dove or Rock Pigeon as it appears today. Before the park it must have been an unlikely event to see a mallard, but there cavorting in a wide canal are mallards. Today, the park is throbbing with Sunday merry makers of human kind. It is a relief that most families seem complete without the annoyance of a dog.
Why are we at Phoenix’s Encanto Park? Well over a month ago, I contacted Kurt Radamaker about the best place to find Rosy-faced Lovebird. His generous reply included encouraging information, with the suggestion to look at a website by Greg Clark. Taking everything into consideration, Encanto Park is the go to place for lovebirds.
Many years ago, Linda and I were gifted a framed painting of two birds. The painter, obviously allowing latitude within the framework of artistic license, presented two parakeets identifiable as Rosy-faced Lovebirds. We displayed the painting in our home and never thought that one day that species of bird might be on an ABA list. In fact, these birds were then not countable. Although formerly called Peach-faced Lovebirds someone must have realized not all peaches are rosy. That might be the reason for the name change, but not all roses are reddish/pinkish in color. I am looking at a white rose while writing. Of course, the term rosy has become more about color than about flowers or even peaches. Today, feeling neither rosy nor peachy, there is room for a little physical push to put Rosy-faced Lovebird on our list.
Finding Encanto Park is relatively easy. We turn into a parking lot where picnickers are unloading vehicles heavily laden with potato salad, fried chicken, gallons of beverages and more. The people know that the season will soon turn against them as the Phoenix sun becomes too brutal to enjoy an afternoon in Encanto Park. The only sounds are those from people, their kids, the vehicle motors, radios, horns and slamming doors. Kurt had given us the impression we would hear our lovebirds before we could exit or RV. Looking around, Linda, who has been to the park a little before lovebirds were released in the 1980’s, think we are not at the main entrance. We are not and although one block south of West Encanto Boulevard something flies quickly overhead. Although clearly a parakeet, the bird remains a something since it could have been, from my perception, a Monk Parakeet or some other related species. On the other hand, Linda sees a greenish bird with a rosy face. Either I had a bad angle or this bug is weighing in badly.
There are large palms towering over lawns and low growing bushes. As we progress northward, more parakeets dash in and out of view. Flu or no flu, I see the rich green plumage and the rosy colored faces of at least seven individuals. With more time, we might find more birds, but we must bird and run.
Present estimates put the entire population of Rosy-faced Lovebirds in the Phoenix region as 2500 and growing. Although several authorities have regarded the species as established in Phoenix for several years, it is only last year when appropriate committees voted to accept Rosy-faced Lovebird as officially established and therefore a countable species. The species is now an acceptable fabric of the local avifauna. Just weeks ago, I search through the California committee’s report and once again am amazed at the reluctance of that committee in not considering Rose-ringed Parakeet a countable species. There are thousands more Rose-ringed Parakeets roaming Bakersfield than are the countable Rose-faced Parakeets occupying Phoenix.
With ABA 693 added to my ABA life list, the drive to familiar Bog Springs, our headquarters for a few days, is tolerable. The bug, diagnosed as bronchitis, has deep tentacles and we find the last remaining campsite with the last remaining once of strength. It is dark. The air is clear and crisp and inside the RV, warmth and welcome slumber. Seven more species to go.
9-28 February 2015
A few weeks ago, we thought we would be heading eastward about mid to late February. However, weather east of almost anywhere beyond our favorite mountain range reports colder temperatures than we want to experience. East of the mountains, the Santa Rita’s, lays the Huachuca and Chiricahua Mountains. Both sites offer potentially good birding, but as of the middle of the month, reports of any rare birds that would add to my ABA list are not on the roster. The web is quiet. Apparently, Nutting Flycatcher is not going to show and that elusive Eared Quetzal is staying south of the border.
The potentially ill winds of winter blowing in our prospective path, lack of any new lifers in Arizona and going back to Salton Sea for a bean goose or some other mega rarity is out of the question. Because we are still learning the ins and outs of comfortable RVing, we decide to take time for some more interior remodeling that will make our lives easier. We set our compass for the east, but will not begin travel in earnest until March.
While we wait for our appointment for the remodeling, we continue to enjoy Madera Canyon and Santa Rita Mountains towering over it and shadowing our camp at Bog Springs Campground. There are little prospects of a new species here. Besides, the bronchitis still has its clutches in my throat and Linda is nursing a cranky knee. This is a good time to rest and reflect. With nearly a quarter of a year under our RV belts, we will ready ourselves for a few birds around the camp. Black-capped Gnatcatcher and Rufous-capped Warbler are a few miles from camp and on the way to the local store where we resupply.
Santa Rita Mountains. Florida Canyon
Without further delay, a venture up Florida Canyon on 19 February is the major birding event of the day. We leave Bog Springs, drive down Madera Canyon Road to Box Canyon Road to catch the route to Florida Canyon. Described as a gravel road, Box Canyon Road is short on gravel and long on washboards. The side road to Florida Canyon is less comfortable for our RV. In 2009, I hurried up those roads in a small rental sedan. Today, we lumber up at speeds a desert tortoise might achieve, but we got there. On the way, two Montezuma Quail rush into the sparse vegetation of a wash. Cassin’s Sparrows sing among the leafless mesquite and two Say’s Phoebes appear to be a couple.
One car is parked at the trailhead. Perhaps I will meet them as they descend the trail with news of the prized warbler. A pickup arrives, but the two occupants are not birders. They are off and running before I can strap on my camera. The creek challenges only a short jump to cross. In minutes, a more than usual arid spot where I witnessed Black-capped Gnatcatcher six years ago, the trail winds over a ridge and returns to the creek. There were no gnatcatchers, but maybe they will be there upon returning. The gate, described six years ago as requiring considerable strength to open and close, is now secured in a manner similar to a giant thumb latch, with a huge handle to slide the horizontal pipe into another barely larger pipe. Besides not having to struggle with a cranky gate closure, I notice the gate itself is not in the stream. It was six years ago. In a few feet, I realize that ascending the creek is quite different that in my last visit. Riparian vegetation is thicker and the trail up and beside the creek bed is more defined. At the dam, dense vegetation would prevent climbing the south side of the dam. There is no need to climb the rock-chocked dam as a well-worn path is parallel and on the opposite side of the creek.
Since I traveled up Florida Canyon several times in 2009, I recall occasional landmarks, but much of the creek has changed, probably from flash floods, the powerful water moving stones and silt down the canyon. Some of the vegetation is leafless, but despite the winter mode, certain bushes are either missing or have overgrown the site. Only the steep canyon walls appear similar to six years ago. I hope to hear Five-striped Sparrows calling from the slopes, but they, if at all present, are silent. Cactus, Rock and Canyon Wrens break the quiet warming canyon. About half way from the dam to the hard right turn of the canyon and where I saw my first Rufous-capped Warbler is today’s location for my second North American observation of the species. The vegetation is exceptionally heavy here. It resembles the vegetation at the right turn of the creek, which today at that right turn looks different from that of six years ago where I sat on a rock and watched the prize warbler circle me, as it seemed to check out my identifiable field marks.
Not far below the warblers is a Black-capped Gnatcatcher. It is not in typical habitat for the species, but birds do not always do the expected. Not far from the gnatcatcher is a pair of Northern Cardinals. Further down the trail, another warbler and to kinds of sparrows let me know that not all birds are easily identifiable. The warbler may have been an Orange-crowned, but the sparrows are so fleeting that a guess is foolish. Finally, two White-throated Sparrows and a Black-chinned Sparrow jump into view in response to spishing.
Although the trek up and down the canyon took two hours, the birds seen made every stumble worth the effort. Actually, there was little to no stumbling. Because of antibiotics for attacking the bronchitis, my Coumadin INR level spiked to a dangerous level. A bad fall might be such that I could not get up, ever. Observing the warbler, gnatcatcher, birds not appreciated in years, and seeing the Black-chinned Sparrow, a species not observed in decades, and returning unscathed are great rewards.
Before returning to Bog Springs, a walk down Proctor Road is at first birdless until finding a mixed flock of sparrows. There are hundreds and in reasonable time, I record dozens of Chipping Sparrows, several Vesper Sparrows and pick out at least one definite Baird’s and two Grasshopper Sparrows among the foraging frenzy. Owing to time, ability and the rapid ebb and flow of the milling individuals, most birds are not identifiable beyond unknown species of little brown birds.
As we continue to wait for our appointment for the RV, time for one last trek up Madera Canyon cannot be ignored. Unfortunately, the day of that journey is a weekend and therefore crowded with people. Perhaps worse, wind is blowing down the canyon, sometimes close to 15 mph gusts. The outdoor seating at Santa Rita Inn is nearly full of a few birders and several people taking in the scenery. Little is going on at the Inn. Further up the road at Kubo, a male Magnificent Hummingbird stirs the imagination of possibilities, but the walk is revealing only the usual suspects, minus Elegant Trogon, Black-throated Gray Warbler and Hepatic Tanager I had seen in the region in late fall. Those three species are missing for the 2015 year list. A couple of birders met on the trek said they had not run across my list of missing birds.
Madera Creek above the main trailhead is quiet except for people who cannot seem to stop talking. The sycamores are now leafless, with their ghostly pale trunks punctuated by spots of sun peeking through a mostly cloudy sky. No trogon in its right mind will be here, but I had to look. Back down the creek, I once again come to the junction with Old Baldy Trail. Should I walk up the trail? Maybe a few yards would be prudent, but then, what might be around the corner? People are the answer. Even by taking away the noisy people, the slopes are still birdless. I know if I start up Old Baldy, I will be wasting my time and feel badly when it is necessary to turn back. Passing the junction of the trail is the better decision.
The wind increases. Construction of the new bridge below the Chuparosa Inn continues. No birds here. People crowd Kubo and Santa Rita Lodge. The few birds here are again the usual suspects, which are White-breasted Nuthatches, hundreds of siskins and almost as many Lesser Goldfinches, Mexican Jays, Bridled Titmouse and a furtive Arizona Woodpecker and boisterous Acorn Woodpeckers.
Near the end of February we depart Bog Springs one last time this season and drive to a motel in Tucson where we have scheduled work on the interior of our RV. We more than ever are anxious to begin heading eastward.
2-5 March 2015
Finally, we turn on I-10, this time away from Tucson to points east. Our first stop on the way for a couple of hours is the Wilcox region known for wintering Sandhill Cranes. Mountain Plover is a possibility, but the wind is blowing dust over this agricultural landscape. We drive on, arriving at the Portal grocery at the mouth of Cave Creek in the gorgeous eastern Chiricahua Mountains. Discovery that all three campgrounds are closed is surprising. I had read that the creek had flooded last September, but thought by now the campgrounds would be open. In fact, a couple of locals wondered why the Forest Service had not opened the sites and guessed that the closures remained for fear of the government being sued for loose flood gravel, a falling limb from a tree or some other ridiculous reason. For what ever reason for the closures, the September hurricane in 2014 did leave its mark. I am guessing the extensive 2011 wildfire above Cave Creek contributed to the flood.
Chiricahua Mountains, east side Our camp off Forest Service Rd 42
A call to the Forest Service helps us find a place to camp, which is not far up the dirt road past the American Museum of Natural History research station. A site at the edge of a northern tributary of Cave Creek is perfect. It is our most isolated site thus far encountered. The creek is barely audible, but during the night rain increases the water level by morning. Eventually, the rain stops, the road, although muddy, is easily passable.
Our original plan calls for two nights in Cave Creek, and then continue eastward to reach Austin, Texas, by 8 March. However, we now plan to trek to the lower Rio Grande for a couple of new ABA birds before arriving at Austin on 8 March. However, the route on I-10 is fraught with wind and more miles than originally imagined. Our first night after beautifully quiet Cave Creek is a truck stop in Van Horn. The next morning after being sandwiched between roaring semi-trucks and another RV couple is windy. As the wind abates, the condition of the road surface goes down hill. After the wind, rough roads and rain, we stop at Ft. Stockton to decide our next move. The weather forecasts possible snow, with a low temperature in the mid to low 20s. Escape from the cold will require going south, but the route south that we need to travel is hours to the east. Re-estimating mileages and dates results in a decision to postpone the lower Rio Grande and drive to Austin early. Of course, this is with fingers crossed that the Gray-crowned Yellowthroats will be there when we travel there in mid-March and that we will be able to weather the icy cold night.
By 10 am on 5 March, the temperature hovers around 25 degrees. Most the RV traffic has pulled out of the Wal-Mart parking lot where we spend a relatively quiet and mostly cozy night. The furnace fan ran down the house batteries, requiring me to jump-start them from the engine battery and enabling me to start the electric generator. We need to be on the road to meet our new-table for reaching Austin.
6-7 March 2010
South Llano River State Park is a great location. Located near the 100th Meridian, the flavor of birds is both eastern and western, with the county check-list listing Eastern and Western Screech-Owls, Spotted and Eastern Towhees and others, including migrant Black-headed and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and more. The campground is great and on 7 March I strap on my boots and find a Golden-cheeked Warbler. It is a quick view, but the golden cheeks and black throat and back clinch the identification. About a quarter of a mile and on a side of a ridge I flush at least 30 Black Vultures. They are close enough to hear their sudden wing beats. They are surely dining on something, but I cannot see what is the main course. A couple of steps beyond, a Golden-cheeked Warbler sings.
We leave the Black-capped Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee and Golden-fronted Woodpecker of the state park and arrive for a week in Austin and residents of Linda’s daughter’s family as well as host to Blue Jays and Red-bellied Woodpeckers.
14-16 March 2015
Following a week in Austin, we drive to the Lower Rio Grande Valley, with the goat of trying for Blue Bunting, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat and perhaps a Groove-billed Ani. The first two are being reported from two state parks near the river. Our route requires either a long and circuitous route to bypass San Antonio or biting the bullet with hope of navigating our way southward to travel down by the river. Everything is fine until a sign reading to I-37/downtown San Antonio. Need to travel into the city is negative. We maintain course and speed by staying on I-410, a kind of beltway around San Antonio. Metropolitan beltways, similar to the one encircling Washington, DC eventually become raceways around a city. Owing aggressive driving, passing on the right, following much too closely and other frightening, it is surprising this race track is not littered by broken glass and the smell of blood. It is not. At least it is not today as, I realize we are traveling counter clock-wise around the city. After at least three other years becoming entangled in San Antonio traffic and misreading confusing signage, one might think I would learn something. One thing, it seems that traveling south of the city requires the hapless driver to first visit the city center. Missing the center today eats up 30 to 40 minutes of valuable time.
Okay, the exit for I-37 south should be coming soon. It does and we are on our way to our highway to Edinburg, where we will spend the night. We are up before sunrise on 15 March and anxious to start. The first target species is a Blue Bunting seen at Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park a few miles from Mission. I had been tracking the numerous sightings of the bird before we ever entered Texas. The little brown bird, the female Blue Bunting was not always found by those that tried to see it. While waiting for the electric-powered shuttle that will transport us, a ground of siix to eight individuals trudge toward headquarters. They had failed to locate the Blue Bunting, but we are optimistic as we shuttle to Kiskadee Trail, where the bird was last spotted at a water feature located at kiskadee Blind. That sighting was two days ago. Carefully, we diligently scour the dense vegetation for anything that has a heart. A Ruby-crowned kinglet or two steal our attention as does a couple of female Black-throated Blue Warblers. Males are absent, but front and present are Great Kiskadee, Plain Chachalaca and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers. We a grateful that the chachalacas are mostly silent. A pair of Olive Sparrows momentarily grabs our gaze. A stop at Kiskadee Blind brings excellent views of Green Jay, a species soliciting countless shutter clicks of two photographer birders from Japan.
Once we reach the end of the trail we decide to retrace our steps. Luck is with us as we find a Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, one of only three western flycatchers missing from Linda’s life list. We will have to be in Arizona during summer for the remainder, but that will be another story. As for the Blue Bunting, it remains absent from my ABA list.
As our shuttle passes a set of feeders near headquarters, someone on board asks what was that orange and black bird. The driver answers that it was an Altimira Oriole. He tells us that one hangs out behind headquarters. Having waited for the return of an Altimira Oriole at Kiskadee Blind and missing the sighting near headquarters, we are hopeful to renew our acquaintance with this tropical species. However, advancing time and prospects of a new yellowthroat urges us onward. A few more minutes, as Linda urges, might bring us an Altimira Oriole, but I am worried about enough time for the next potential lifer.
Miles eastward, we turn into Estero Llano Grange Park. Rain is peppering the windshield and I cannot locate my rain coat. Donning my trusty green jacket, the one matching Linda’s that has kept us warm and mostly dry since purchasing them in 1997 when we lived at remote Morgan Spring in Oregon. It it continues to rain, I will get wet, but the yellowthroat will not wait for me, wet or dry. Checking in at headquarters reveals the Gray-crowned Yellowthroat was sighted this morning. The ranger drays a circle on a map. I trudge outside, find the trail and notice a group ahead. They stop and talk. Apparently, they decide not to go beyond the flooded part of the wide trail. I have no choice. The hunt is in my blood. The yellowthroat is out there. Well, maybe it is. It could have moved on just hours ago or maybe in passing minutes, it flies out of the park. I spish and wait at the spot marked on my map. Muddy tracks are all around. Did all of the makers of those foot-prints see the Gray-crowned Yellowthroat today? If they did, the bird has left the sight, or at least the immediate region marked on the map.
A sinking feeling washes over as I search for the rare warbler. In a few yards I come to a slightly more open flat. The thick bushes are surrounded by wet soggy areas of grass. I am ready to throw in the towel, but promise myself to search the spot on the map a I return, wading water nearly over my boot laces. I think I already feel water soaking into one sock. It all this worth the effort, the discomfort and the expense of coming to the valley. We could have left Austin and headed east toward Florida. However, the prospect of the bunting, warbler and maybe an ani overcame reason and the concern of bad weather. While mentally flogging myself, a yellow bird darts up out of nearby brush and into a tree. It look nervous. Before it drives back into the low vegetation, I see that it also looks to be a warbler. In fact, it I a parulid that I have not had the pleasure until today. While it perches on a bare winter branch, I see the bird’s telling plumage pattern, its shape, its split eye-ring and enjoy the satisfaction that this is my first ralphi, the subspecies sometimes found in Texas.
With the Gray-crowned Yellowthroat bringing the ABA total to 694, my average success rate this year for finding rarities remains at 33%. Swallow-tailed Kite is a possibility along the way. As of the ides of March, I have 21 day to travel deep into Florida and find the species necessary to top off my goal of 700 ABA species.
Regardless of goals, it is we are reluctant to leave what the Lower Rio Grande Valley offers to hungry birders, but are excited of what is ahead. We drive northward. The sprawl of Texas is huge and rain is at our backs and sometimes falling from overhead. Reports of any wayward buntings or yellowthroats since our visit are lacking. Would another day be enough to locate the missing bunting. Owing to the buckets of rain, I doubt success. Perhaps that bunting will be available some other time.
18 March 2015
The last few days are bird-wise uneventful until yesterday when arriving in Brazos Bend State Park, southeast of Houston. The park is on a trajectory that will allow us to avoid the traffic of Houston and to revisit a place we birded in 2005. We are near the location where we began the 2005 journey to complete the Big Trip. At that time, we birded part of Sabine National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana and had our first look at High Highland in eastern Texas. It was too early for a big migration, but we were excited about finding a potential Streak-backed Oriole in Brazos Bend. Of course, the bird was long-gone, but we relish in the birds it left behind. Yesterday, many of those same species, Least Grebe, Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Little Blue Heron and White Ibis, are a delight.
Brazos Bend State Park Free ferry from Galvestonto Bolivar Peninsula
Today, the loud strains of a Tufted Titmouse wake us. Another sound is the soothing pitter-patter of rain on our roof. The sound increases as larger and larger drops plummet from a dark gray sky. Even larger louder splashes from drops collecting on tree limbs above mean this is a wet morning. According to a weather app, this rain will be around for at leat a couple of hours and maybe longer. Scanning skyward for a Swallow-tailed Kite, a species that could be here and that would be an ABA lifer is more futile today than yesterday.
Our last night in Texas is a city park in Winnie, the location birders scouting High Island travel to for a motel. The eastern Texas location positions should limit the number of nights in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama and therefore our arrival in Florida will be sooner.
19-20 March 2015
The drive across the wide coastal terrain of Louisiana is full of traffic. We cross the Mississippi River, so mighty that its watershed occupies 31 states. Our night destination is east of Baton Rouge. It might have been fun to visit LSU, one of the major museum collections I have not experienced except through specimens borrowed from there. Assuming they were present, it would be great to meet a number of staff there. It also has been a long time since seeing Van Remsen. In fact, any last meetings were probably back in the days when Henre Ouellet, Ned Johnson and Burt Monroe were members of the AOU Check-list Committee. The interstate driving is dulling, but the recollection of the demise of all but Van is sharp. A visit to LSU should be soon or there will not be time.
We sail eastward across the remainder of Louisiana and are soon motoring across Mississippi. The river crossing is surprising since the river is narrower that places further north. Alabama is a new state for me, but I have to say I have not set foot in that state. Our wheels keep turning toward Florida.