Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Wrenegades Birdathon 2012

by Jennie MacFarland
A portion of the intrepid Wrenegades Birdathon team started the day at Tucson Audubon Society headquarters at the ambitious time of 3:30 AM. Jennie MacFarland, Matt Brooks, Sara Pike, Corey Perez and Kate Reynolds all piled into the mini-van a little sleepy but very excited at the possibilities of our Big Day. Our first stop was Mount Lemmon and we needed to cross town so were off without any delay! We made a brief stop at an obliging Circle K for some much needed coffee and supplies and then zoomed to Mount Lemmon to search for owls and nightjars.
Excitement grew as we made our first stop at Soldier Canyon to attempt to hear some of the lower elevation owls. We were able hear two Elf Owls that proceeded to go bananas and call repeatedly (a lifer for a few on the team!) but didn’t detect any Western Screech-owls. We tried a few other stops as we headed up the mountain, but still did not hear this bird. We did however detect several Common Poorwills at these stops. It was in Bear Canyon that we hit the jackpot and heard a very loud Whiskered Screech-owl and a Mexican Whip-poor-will which I did not think we were going to get on this Birdathon as I had not heard one yet this year. Jubilant, we continued up and attempted to hear the Flammulated Owl that had been reported without any luck, but we did hear another Mexican Whip-poor-will. The faint light growing ever brighter in the east and the Olive Warbler that called reminded us that we needed to head to our chosen dawn chorus destination or we were going to miss it! As we headed to the car we also detected a Yellow-eyed Junco, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Spotted Towhee, Hermit Thrush and a House Wren. Now we were racking up species! 
In the gray semi-darkness we reached Bear Wallow and listened intently to the dawn chorus, which was in its first act. We quickly started identifying birds such as Red-faced Warbler, Red-breasted Nuthatch, American Robin, Pygmy Nuthatch and Mountain Chickadee. Then Matt identified a Brown Creeper by its very cute song and then we heard the repetitive call of a raptor from very close by. After some consideration and listening to various calls, we confirmed our first hunch that it was a Northern Goshawk calling. After the initial excitement settled down, we were no longer hearing any new species so decide to begin birding our way down the mountain. As we turned out of the Bear Wallow pull out, there was a Wild Turkey just standing there on the side of the road! We drove down towards Rose Canyon Lake with the windows down hoping to pick up some new birds. 
We heard a Painted Redstart (which ended up being the only one for the day!) and little further along detected Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Greater Pewee, Acorn Woodpecker, White-breasted Nuthatch (which means we found all three nuthatches on the mountain!) and stared through the scope as a bird that we hoped was a Cassin’s Finch but turned out to be a Pine Siskin. Once we were at the lake we had some beautiful views of a small flock of Grace’s Warblers and Yellow-rumped Warblers and watched a House Wren sing his little heart out. As beautiful as these sights were, we needed to press on and were off! 
Then in Willow Canyon at a private residence we bagged a beautiful male Magnificent Hummingbird, a flock of Mexican Jays and got some good looks at Yellow-eyed Juncos. Our next stop was in Molino Basin where we had great looks at a Green-tailed Towhee and a bright pair of Summer Tanagers. Matt heard the distinctive, though faint bill clatter of the Greater Roadrunner. At this point we were running late so quickly piled into the car and zoomed off to our next destination: Sweetwater Wetlands.
As we raced across town, just in time to hit traffic, we listened to some classic rock and kept our eyes peeled for new birds. We checked off the Rock Pigeons, House Sparrows and Starlings that you would expect but also observed a Red-tailed Hawk, Eurasian Collared Dove, a bright red male Northern Cardinal and both White-winged and Mourning Doves along the way. Once we reached Sweetwater Wetlands we rendezvoused with the other two members of our team, Sandy Elers and Julie Gordon and immediately started ticking off birds. We saw and heard much of what one would expect such as Red-winged Blackbird and Common Yellowthroat, but could not find a Black Phoebe anywhere! We also ran into Andrew Core (compiler of the Arizona Rare Bird Alert) as we started birding in Sweetwater and he accompanied us through the wetlands. In the back settling ponds we squinted through scopes and observed Black-necked Stilts, American Avocets (one on a nest!), Killdeers, Northern Shovelers, Spotted Sandpiper, Mallards and Cinnamon Teals. Then we met up with a fellow Birdathon team, the WaterFoul (Matt G and Rod, both of TAS) and they joined forces with us for awhile. Then we started turning up some rarities in scope. We found a Least Sandpiper, a Solitary Sandpiper and four Long-billed Dowitchers. As we continued the loop through the wetlands, we saw both Cassin’s Kingbirds and a Western Kingbird in the same snag and collected other expected species such as Black-chinned Hummingbird, Anna’s Hummingbird, Abert’s Towhee, Song Sparrow, Pied-billed Grebe (found by Julie and Sandy!) and Great-tailed Grackle. Towards the end of our lap, we did see one fluffy Great-horned Owl chick in a nest and a single Harris’ Hawk. As we left Sweetwater Wetlands we said our farewells to Andrew and the Water Fouls and jumped onto the freeway and towards Madera Canyon! It was 10 am and we already had 99 species!!!
We made a brief stop at the Mulberry trees on Continental Road and picked up Western Tanager, Curve-billed Thrasher and Black-headed Grosbeak. Our real target here was eluding us until a sizable flock of Cedar Waxwings flew in to devour the berries. Then we drove through the grasslands towards Madera Canyon with the windows down and pick up the songs of Rufous-winged Sparrow and Black-throated Sparrow. We then walked the trail at Proctor Road which yielded some unusual sightings. We watched a Say’s Phoebe perched at the top of the bathroom and heard Lesser Goldfinches singing away. Early in our walk we encountered one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. 
A beautiful Black-tailed Rattlesnake was stretched out on a big flat rock alongside the stream with his head poised over the water taking a drink. During a birdathon, animals besides birds aren’t supposed to exist, but we all had to stop and admire this. As we continued we had excellent looks at a Canyon Towhee and watched a tiny Blue-gray Gnatcatcher harass a Mexican Jay
       We also heard Virginia’s Warbler that eluded our binoculars and saw a silent Olive-sided Flycatcher. We then observed a Dusky Flycatcher, a Hammond’s Flycatcher and a Pacific-slope Flycatcher. It was rather instructive to see them so close together and we could really see the subtle differences between these similar species. As we headed back to the car, we all had nice looks at a male Broad-billed Hummingbird and saw a gorgeous Swainson ’s Thrush. Then we headed into the famous canyon itself!
    At the Santa Rita Lodge we watched the busy feeders for awhile and a troop of Wild Turkeys paraded through! We also saw large quantities of Chipping Sparrows and Lazuli Buntings and watched a single female Blue-throated Hummingbird at the feeder and watched a lone Arizona Woodpecker. We then had lunch at the Mount Wrightston Picnic Area and observed some adorable Bridled Titmice. We then watched the feeders at the Kubo B&B for awhile and did not see anything new until the only oriole of the day, a pair of Hooded Orioles with the brightest male I have ever seen finally turned up.
As our species count grew ever larger, we wanted to see how high we could go so we went south towards Tubac. Here we finally found a Vermillion Flycatcher, Grey Hawk and Black Vulture. We also heard a strange call and racked our brains before we realized it was a very early Yellow-breasted Chat! With victory deliciously near, we decided to head down to the Rio Rico flooded agriculture fields. This turned out to be an excellent decision. The fields were flooded to just the right amount to attract lots of birds. 
Here we saw several Cattle Egrets walking around the field as well as a single Brewer’s Blackbird and a pair of Mexican Mallards. We saw a few Black-bellied Whistling Ducks flyover but it was when we crossed the road to see the other fields that things got exciting! There was a huge group of Whistling Ducks in these other fields as well as a huge flock of Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds with two Yellow-headed Blackbirds hidden in the crowd in the style of “Where’s Waldo.” We then heard a singing Western Meadowlark, some Brown-headed Cowbirds and Sara spotted two Swainson’s Hawks hiding in plain sight on the fence on the far side of the field.
With the chance of victory near, we headed back to Tucson and schemed on where we could scrape up a few more birds. We stopped in Kennedy Park to find some of the recently reported rarities and bagged Canada Goose, Black-crowned Night Heron, Double-crested Cormorant and a Snowy Egret on the far bank. 
It was then that a group of young people hanging out at the park stopped snickering at us and timidly asked what we were looking at. When we told them and invited them to look through the scopes at the Snowy Egret, they were amazed and we explained that it isn’t a very common bird in this area and that we were in a contest to see the most birds in one day. It was great to be able to share the wonder of birds.
At this point we needed to return the rental car, so some of our team members were dropped off at their cars and headed home. 
Then a core group; Jennie, Matt, Sara and Corey, headed to the Mason Audubon Center to try and find a Costa’s Hummingbird. We found it and then were tied with the currently leading team. We were anxious to find a few more birds so we headed to Arthur Pack Park and almost immediately turned up a Gadwall in the lake. 
We were still missing some relatively common birds such as American Kestrel, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher and Pyrrhuloxia which we now searched for, but never did find. Our next bird was a small flock of foraging Brewer’s Sparrows which flitted through a patch of creosote. As the evening settled and the flood lights turned on over the ball fields, the Lesser Nighthawks came out and we ended our Birdathon with 147 species!!
We then headed to Thunder Canyon Brewery (a Birdathon dining sponsor) for some well deserved dinner! What a fun day full of camaraderie and birding! I cannot wait until the Sky Island Birding Cup which will probably be my next Big Day. Go Wrenegades!!!


  1. Cool! You mean Pied-billed Grebe at Sweetwater, I think? Otherwise, I need to revise the RBA...

  2. This looks like a great time!

  3. Great job guys! and thanks for the help at Sweetwater!


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