It was difficult to leave Portal behind after the fantastic experiences I enjoyed while exploring the Chiricahuas. I’d seen so much in such a short period of time that even if the remaining days of the trip were completely birdless I would still consider the vacation a success. Of course, the second half of my visit to southeastern Arizona turned out to be just as birdy as the first. Even though I departed from the Portal Peak Lodge more than 2 hours before sunrise, I was able to start birding on the road to Sierra Vista. Lesser Nighthawks periodically swooped through my headlights as I drove across the desert. Light was beginning to return to the landscape just north of Douglas, where a large, dusty-gray Great Horned Owl flew directly at my car at windshield height. We gave each other quite a start, but the bird cleared my vehicle safely and I watched it continue across the highway unscathed in my rear-view mirror. The predawn drive was worth the potential peril, because I didn’t want to waste any valuable daylight on the road. There was a whole new sky island range to get acquainted with, and I wanted to get started as soon as the sun was up.
My first stop was Hunter Canyon, where I was hoping to catch up with a pair of Rufous-capped Warblers. Another “border specialty” species, these birds had been frequenting a gully less than a mile up trail from the parking lot. A sighting the previous morning was the first after several days of negative reports, so I felt good about my chances of connecting with the warblers. I arrived at the road’s end just before 6 and started up the slope towards the stakeout site. It didn’t take too long to reach the grove of trees where the birds had been seen, and I was the first to arrive on the scene. I settled on a comfortable log to wait, watch, and listen. Over the next 4 hours, there was no sign of the Rufous-capped Warblers. A tour group arrived at one point to lend their combined eyes and ears to the search effort, but we came up short with our primary quarry. There were still plenty of great birds around, including Phainopeplas, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, multiple species of jays, and my first Virginia’s Warbler. The biggest surprise came when I investigated a quiet noise in the treetops behind me, discovering a family of recently fledged Northern Pygmy-Owls moving through the canopy and calling to one another. I’d heard several lifer owls earlier in the vacation, but it was nice to finally get a clear look at a new species that I’d feared I might miss altogether.
I wrote the Rufous-caps off as a dip and set out to seek a new target. I had been advised that Buff-breasted Flycatchers, high elevation pine forest specialists, are consistently encountered at the Reef Townsite Campground up Carr Canyon. These tips came with a warning that the road to the camp was a gravelly, undulating, narrow path with an extensive series of sharp switchbacks. I hadn’t been let down by my temporary car yet, and my faith in “the little rental that could” was not misplaced. I took it slow and safe on my journey up the mountain, and the drive was perfectly manageable. I was rewarded with a close, calling Buff-breast as soon as I parked my vehicle at the trailhead. It’s easy to think that if you’ve seen one Empidonax flycatcher, you’ve seen them all, but this little guy was especially cute. The smaller size compared to its already small cousins and the bright orange wash across the underparts were a pretty adorable combo. It was definitely worth the long and winding journey.
After checking into my hotel in the heat of the afternoon, I figured it was a good time for a siesta before setting out again in the evening. When I looked at my email, however, I discovered an eBird alert stating that the Rufous-capped Warblers had returned to Hunter Canyon less than an hour after I departed. Well, I wasn’t going to let them get away with that! I made my way back up the road and starting hiking up to the grove once again, fighting against the blazing heat of the sunlight beating down on me. It took me considerably longer to reach the right spot than it had in the morning, but once I found some shade and rehydrated I was feeling like myself again. Suddenly, I heard a sound that sent a chill down my spine. It was the screeching yowl of a Mountain Lion, just like the one I’d heard a few days prior at Madera. This one was much louder, much closer. I couldn’t see the source of the cry, but I estimated that it was probably less than 100 feet away, in the dense vegetation just barely beyond the shallow gorge ahead. Giving the cat the benefit of the doubt and hoping it would do the right thing, I loudly broadcast my position by speaking in an exaggerated, deep voice. I even played a bit of a podcast over my phone speakers and talked along with it to create the auditory illusion of a group. The Cougar went silent as soon as it heard me, though I did hear a higher-pitched reply from far back in the hills behind me a moment later. Whatever the two felines wanted from one another, it apparently had nothing to do with me. I saw neither hide nor hair of them and had no trouble whatsoever. Everyone involved got to go home safe and happy, and I’m grateful for that. What’s more, the Rufous-capped Warblers were nice enough to come out and play before I departed. I heard their distinctive calls and songs as they moved through the dense foliage, and briefly caught a glimpse of one of the tiny, long-tailed birds before it hopped back into cover. I’m glad I got back out there!
With sunset approaching, I made my way to Ash Canyon B&B. The backyard feeders at this site are one of the most reliable places in the region to see Lucifer Hummingbirds, with multiple individuals coming to drink before taking off for their evening roosts. It’s also a traditionally consistent spot for Montezuma Quail, but comments from the locals saying they had been absent for the past week made me glad I’d already found the elusive birds in the Chiricahuas. The Lucifers were cooperative and confiding, showing off nicely in the fading daylight alongside a number of other hummingbird species. I made pleasant conversation with the other assembled birders, including a few familiar faces from earlier stops (and some friends from back home on Long Island!) who wanted to compare trip notes. I appreciated the opportunity to catch my breath and relax for a bit after a full day of scrambling around.
Sunday was the only day of the trip that I slept in, because Ramsey Canyon opens at 8 and I had no other pressing targets in the area that I could conceivably chase at dawn. Temperatures were already starting to climb as I climbed the trail towards the upper reaches of the canyon. The directions I received from friends and refuge staff led me directly to the stream crossing where a Flame-colored Tanager had been spending the summer. I could certainly hear tanager calls floating down from the canopy, but I’d crossed paths with a family of Hepatics and knew there were also Westerns in the area. While I sat in the shade and scanned for visual confirmation, I listened contentedly to the cries of the trogons and other sky island forest birds. A young Black Bear materialized out of the woods, working its way down the slope, but it turned tail and bolted when it realized there were humans present. The butterfly show was a delight, and I finally enjoyed prolonged photo opps with the stunning Arizona Sisters. At last, a streak-backed bird with white wing markings and a dark cheek patch on its bright orange head appeared among the highest boughs of the evergreens. I was treated to brief but passable views before it dropped out of sight and headed further down the creek. Sometimes you’ve got to take what you can get!
Several groups of birders came and went during my vigil at Ramsey Canyon, but the ones I got to know best were Dan Johnston and Paul Lombardi, who were visiting from Utah. I tried unsuccessfully to help them relocate the tanager, but a bathing Red-faced Warbler that I pointed out was a fine consolation prize and lifer for both of them. Over the course of our conversation, they mentioned that they were planning to chase Buff-collared Nightjars at sunset. Friends had warned me that my hitherto reliable rental car would almost certainly perish if I tried to take it to California Gulch, the primary spot for the sought after Mexican nightbirds this year. I had just started to come to terms with the reality that I’d probably have to pass on one of my most wanted targets, but now I was presented with another option. I tentatively asked if I could join their quest, and they graciously agreed to take me along. They had four wheel drive and high clearance, I had young ears that would be better able to pick out the bird’s song at a distance…it was a mutually beneficial arrangement! We exchanged contact information, and I left them to keep searching Ramsey while I set out for my next destination.
Patagonia is a legendary location in the birding world. It lends its name to a phenomenon dubbed the “Patagonia Picnic Table Effect,” which describes how concentrations of birders converging on a reported rarity will often lead to the discovery of additional rarities in the vicinity. I stopped for lunch at the famed rest stop where these circumstances have played out time and time again, serenaded by the squeaky calls of the resident Thick-billed Kingbirds perched overhead. The Paton Center for Hummingbirds in town afforded me the opportunity to get a better look at the handsome Violet-crowned Hummingbird, and I picked the brains of the Audubon workers for tips about tracking down my few remaining target birds.
Patagonia Lake State Park has a pretty steep entry fee, especially on the weekends, but I decided to pony up the cash for a chance to check out the birding trail. I do not regret the price of admission! A lone American White Pelican floating past roosting Neotropic Cormorants quickly let me know that, at the very least, I’d have a chance to pick up some new year birds. I also confirmed the presence of phenotypically pure Mexican Ducks for the first time on the trip, noting the absence of white in their tail feathers and darker body plumage. A nesting pair of Northern Beardless-Tyrannulets was another enjoyable treat, and I found more Yellow-breasted Chats than I’ve ever seen in one place in my entire life. Even counting conservatively, I tallied nearly 30 individuals. It was a great opportunity to take audio recordings of their wildly improvisational songs! Towards the end of my time on the trail, I was surprised by a Common Black Hawk that flushed from the water as I approached Sonoita Creek. This was a species I didn’t think I could count on at the locations I planned to visit. Sometimes it’s nice to be proven wrong!
Dan and Paul met me outside my hotel in the late afternoon. They decided that, rather than tackle the rough roads of California Gulch, we should try a secondary location at the Brown Canyon Wash in Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. Multiple Buff-collared Nightjars had been reported from the road at this site earlier in the season. There had been no updates for a few weeks, but we knew it was likely that the birds were still present. The eBird data clearly showed that practically nobody was visiting the wash at the right time of day, presumably because most tour guides and groups just take people out to California Gulch where specific perches and foraging sites are well known. Nightjars also tend to vocalize less frequently as summer wears on, but we figured it was still worth trying our luck. I’d been hearing Mexican Whip-poor-wills and Common Poorwills singing unprompted at twilight on an almost nightly basis, so I hoped that at least one Buffjar would follow suit. Our dusky drive through the desert was absolutely lovely, featuring striking scenery, feeding flocks of Lesser Nighthawks, and a number of power pole raptors that included an unexpected Harris’s Hawk. Shortly after passing a border patrol checkpoint south of Three Points, we turned off down a dirt road and headed west towards the staked location.
We arrived on the scene just after official sunset, with the skies starting to darken around us. Poorwills began to stir and sing from the faraway foothills as sparrows and kingbirds declared their territories one last time before going to sleep. Suddenly, I heard it! It was distant, faint, but I could make out the final, emphasized phrase of the Buff-collared Nightjar’s bizarre song against the soundscape of serenading crickets. We moved down the road closer to the bird, and from the new position we could just barely hear a bit more of the softer, accelerating buildup preceding each flourished note. The bird was still quite far off, but we were all able to zero in on the odd vocalizations before the nightjar, the Poorwills, and the other songsters fell silent for the night. Dan and Paul thanked me for coming along, admitting that they would have had a difficult time hearing the bird in time without me. The gratitude went both ways, since I wouldn’t have been anywhere near the place if they hadn’t provided transportation. The starscape overhead was positively stunning, and we could clearly see Mars, Saturn, Jupiter, and Venus arranged in a prominent, gentle arc across the southern sky. What a night!
On the drive back to Green Valley, riding high on our victory over the Buffjar, we hit a couple of bumps in the road. The return trip through border patrol didn’t slow us down for long, but when Paul noticed the tire pressure gauge plummeting we pulled over to see what had happened. I inspected an ominous hissing noise to discover that we had rolled over a drywall screw somewhere in Three Points…yowzah. I lent a hand to my new friends and helped to replace the flat under the lights of a nearby gas station. There was a brief moment where I thought I’d lost my rental car keys somewhere on the dusty trail behind us, which certainly added to the chaos of the situation. Fortunately, I discovered them safely wedged in the seat cushions. Soon we were on our way once again, and we were lucky enough to spy a Bobcat crossing the road just outside of Tucson. Once I was back at my room, getting ready for bed, I couldn’t help laughing at the absurdity of the evening. I had no specific plans to wind up changing a tire in the desert at night with two people who had been strangers just 12 hours earlier, but birding brings folks together in mysterious ways. We all wanted to hear that chittering, bug-eyed, camo-feathered beastie from south of the border bad enough to take part in a most unusual journey. Against all odds, it paid off, and I’d made some new friends in the process. Never a dull moment.
I had plans to meet up with old pals from my Cornell days for my final night in Arizona, so I knew that my opportunities for chases and cleanup were limited. Dan and Paul met me at the De Anza trail in Tumacacori-Carmen to see if we could connect with a few more rarities and specialties. It is all but impossible to bag every single species one seeks on a birding trip, but I had come shockingly close to doing just that. A Yellow-green Vireo frequenting the area refused to show for me, though I later learned that it made an appearance for mere seconds within 100 yards of the spot on the trail from where I was stationed. On the other hand, I got to watch a pair of Rose-breasted Becards ferrying food to their massive nest less than a mile upriver. As I moved back and forth between the sites, I was introduced to a number of famous Arizona birding experts. Some of these guys literally wrote the book on where to find birds in the state, but they enthusiastically shared stories from their years of experience while listening to my first impressions from a wild, week-long, whirlwind tour. I bid farewell to Paul and Dan in a location befitting our impromptu, unforeseen birding partnership: a wastewater treatment plant where we paused to search for interesting waterfowl and waders. On my own again, albeit briefly, I explored a couple of hotspots in the Tucson area in search of one last likely lifer that was still missing from my list. In the afternoon heat, at a quiet botanical garden, I found a variety of birds visiting a cactus-shaped fountain to drink, bathe, and cool off. Among them were half a dozen Costa’s Hummingbirds, the final expected species I required. That’s a wrap!
Over tasty chimichangas and margaritas the size of my head, I regaled my college buddies Nicole, Christine, and Kyle with tales of my travels across the desert between the sky islands. After showing my pictures and explaining the natural history of some of the stranger species, the conversation gradually shifted to other topics. It was nice to have an evening of relaxation and reminiscence in good company at the end of my madcap adventure. In the space of a week exploring Arizona, I’d covered over 900 miles and documented 164 species of birds. 116 of those were new additions to my 2018 year list, and 55 were species that I’d never before encountered in my life. I’m still tallying up my non-avian records, but I know I had at least 10 new mammals, more than a dozen butterflies, and 5 or more reptiles to boot. Consider this summer vacation a roaring success! It was probably the most intense solo outing I’ve done yet. Honestly, though, there’s no such thing as a one-man trip. This expedition would not have been possible without help from those who’d gone before me and assistance from the folks I met along the way. I owe them all my deepest thanks. My time in southeastern Arizona was a truly unforgettable journey. I’m already looking forward to one day returning for more.