Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Day at the Beach

Guest post by Rick Wright
From Aimophila Adventures

Tucson doesn’t really have a beach, but less than four hours’ easy drive south and west are the sands and rocky points of Puerto Peñasco, the nearest and easiest place for us desert rats to do a little seabirding. This past Wednesday I led a Tucson Audubon field trip down to the Sea of  Cortez in search of shorebirds. We wound up with only eighteen species of waders, a slightly disappointing tally for this time of year–but among them were some goodies, and there was plenty else to keep us busy during the nine hours we had on the beach before turning back to Tucson.

We left town that morning a little after 4:30, with a hint of dawn already visible behind the Rincons. By the time we entered caracara country, it was daylight, and we saw two Crested Caracaras checking out the night’s offerings on the highway east of Sells. A bit of a puzzlement was a medium-sized, relatively brown owl flying stiffly across the highway near the old Mesquital Migrant Trap: anywhere else, at any other time of year, I’d probably have ticked it off as a Long-eared Owl, but that’s just too weird for the desert in August.

Our border crossing at Lukeville was easy as pie–we didn’t even show our passports, much less have to stop for what is usually a desultory inspection. A few Black Vultures and Harris’s Hawks joined the abundant Turkey Vultures around the Sonoyta dump, and then, good conversation making the time and the miles slip away, we were in Puerto P.

We’d timed our tour so as to have a few hours before tide started coming in. We started in the inner harbor, which was lined with the usual Brown Pelicans and Heermann’s and Yellow-footed Gulls; our only Lesser Yellowlegs of the day flew past us here, and Willets hunted the rocks and the sandy edges, oblivious of fishermen and early swimmers. Off the seawall we saw our first terns of the day, mostly Common Terns but with the odd Black Tern or Royal Tern passing. Careful scoping produced small numbers of Brown and Blue-footed Boobies, and two distant Black Storm-Petrels. A couple of Black-vented Shearwaters flew in and landed on the water, but so far out that for most of us they were nothing more than occasional heads occasionally visible above the more than occasional waves.

With the tide good and low, we decided to run out to Rocky Beach (or whatever the beach at Sinaloa Ave. is called) and see if we could find any rockpipers. Wilson’s, Semipalmated, and Black-bellied Plovers were wandering the flats and pecking at the edges of the tide pools, accompanied by the omnipresent Willets. A couple of Black-vented Shearwaters were in attendance on the pelicans right in the surf, the splendid views more than making up for the frustration the earlier birds had caused. Royal Terns were almost constantly in sight here, and it wasn’t long before a fine Elegant Tern came in, passing close to us and to its thicker-billed cousins for an excellent comparison.

But this was a shorebird trip, and so we kept our eyes downcast, hoping for the movement that would betray the presence of waders on the rocks. Aha, there they are! Three Surfbirds, all adults, all still with a hint of golden spangling on their scapulars and hearts not on their sleeves but on their flanks, were feeding quiet and calm nearby.

For a long time, this was the only shorebird I’d seen in Sonora and not in the US (a fall trip to California finally took care of that for me)–and I still haven’t seen it in Vancouver, which may well have been an earlier port of call for these very individuals as they made their way south.

The day couldn’t get any better, I thought, but we trundled out to the rocks at Pelican Point, where the tide was so high that people were swimming merrily on the path I’d intended to use to get out to look for boobies. We did stand on the ever narrower strip of beach, the tide lapping at our tripod feet, long enough to see another Black and two Least Storm-Petrels, completing the list of tubenoses reasonably to be hoped for from shore.

The usual constellation of boulders had disappeared beneath the tide, so we looked for a spot to look down on the rocks. We’d been seeing both species of booby fly past all morning, but here was where we finally got good views of them perched, some of them at distances so close as to convince us that they deserved their disparaging English name. Most were Blue-footed Boobies, their eponymous webs glowing blue-violet against the white glare of the rocks.

But there were Brown Boobies among them, too, adults dapper in brown and white, juveniles elegantly somber in two-tone chocolate.

With the tide rapidly approaching its highest, we turned back to visit the head of Cholla Bay, where rising waters can concentrate shorebirds and terns in impressive numbers. I can’t say that we ran into masses of birds this time, but the quality was high if the numbers weren’t: we had up to eleven Snowy Plovers at once on the beach, and Least and Forster’s Terns joined the Commons, Blacks, and Royals loafing on the rapidly submerging sandbars. The commonest of the large sandpipers was Marbled Godwit, always a happy sight.

They shared the sand and salicornia flats with curlews, including plenty of Whimbrels

and gentle-faced Long-billed Curlews down from the prairies.

The really big show here at high tide is the abundance of Large-billed Sparrows, the large, blurry Passerculus endemic to the Sea of Cortez. When the water is low, they scamper through the saltwort, generally unseen this time of year; but when it rises, they emerge to feed on the roads and to fly flutteringly from emergent patch to emergent patch of taller vegetation. Our estimate this time: no fewer than 33 individuals, many of them giving great looks as they fed on the sandy road and sought shade under the rocks (all the time, no doubt, aware that my camera batteries had died).

I replaced my batteries, or at least my camera’s, and we struck off for terra incognita–the golf course ponds tantalizingly just visible across the head of the bay. We’d been watching birds drop in there, from terns to an adult Reddish Egret, and decided to spend the last of our day trying to figure out how to get in. Geographically, it turned out to be quite straightforward: the golf course is called Laguna del Mar, and it’s reached from Highway Eight north of town. Fortunately, it didn’t take much Spanish to let the guard at the gate know what we wanted, and even less to understand that he would give us 20 minutes, no more.

We zoomed. We zoomed past small ponds that must be some of Puerto Peñasco’s very best migrant traps, past lavishly irrigated lawns that must prove irresistible to stray grasspipers, past remnant patches of bleak saltbush that must hide Le Conte’s Thrashers. But we stopped, too. We stopped for a gang of some 45 Horned Larks, with streaky and spotty juveniles among them, and we stopped for an incongruous female-plumaged Red-breasted Merganser on one of the large ponds. And we stopped for a fine flock of shorebirds, including the day’s only dozen or so Ruddy Turnstones and a couple of American Oystercatchers.

We pushed it hard, but it was still half an hour before we turned in our permit and thanked the friendly guards for letting see their muchos pajaros; on the way out, we pondered whether it might not be worth it to buy a lot just for the birding privileges.

The drive home was as pleasant as the drive down that morning had been. Our border passage took no more than ten minutes, and Tucson was nearly in sight by the time the Lesser Nighthawks started swooping over the road. Home at 7:30 pm, and ready to dream of the next visit to our very own tropical beach.

The day’s list is on line here. If you see anything you like, join us next August for another shorebirding trip to the Sea of Cortez; it will be announced on the Tucson Audubon website as soon as we’ve settled on a date.


  1. Thank you!!! This really helped me identify some birds I saw recently in Rocky Point.

  2. Thank you!!! This really helped me identify some birds I saw recently in Rocky Point.


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