Friday, October 3, 2014

Fall Birding Adventure in the Atascosa Highlands

Guest post by Tim Helentjaris
Our target bird for this trip was the Five-striped Sparrow in California Gulch. Matt Griffiths and Jennie MacFarland had never seen this species and had never been to the Gulch, I was last there in the early 90’s. We also thought we would try to pick up a couple of other uncommon species on this trip. We were originally going to go two weeks ago, then last week, each time postponed due to scheduling conflicts. We knew this was late in the season, the FsSp’s were no longer singing and harder to find, but we were determined to try, and in spite of the weather problems (some parts of Nogales had up to 8 inches of rain the last couple of days). Wow, this was a great day of birding, it’s not often that you get all of your target species but even some additional ones! Late season birding in southeast Arizona is still top-notch!

We started driving west on Ruby Road from the exit and this road is still in excellent shape, all the way to the turn-off to California Gulch. That road, not so much. As Richard Fray reported even before these last intense rains, there are some deep flooded pools on the way in that will test most vehicles. I think most folks would only be comfortable trying this in a full-size, high-clearance vehicle.

We first stopped at the flooded area behind the dam, probably even enlarged over that reported by R. Fray a couple of weeks ago. Walking along the side, there were a lot of birds in the willows and on the hillsides. After a short while, we spotted three LEAST GREBES, including at least one immature, stripy-headed one, probably no more than 50 ft away. We all got good looks at these birds and were able to observe them for some time. Among all of the songs and chips we heard there, one low, fast chattering caught our attention. We wondered if it was a Green Kingfisher back deep in the willows on the other side of the flooded area, where we could not go. Our confidence in this ID is not real high, seems like there are a number of species that can produce similar sounds, we just call it to everyone’s attention to at least consider it and see if they can get a firmer identification.

From there, we drove further south towards the path down to the gulch, just prior hearing the unmistakeable “UFO”-call of the male MONTEZUMA QUAIL. Always exciting, even when you don’t see them. Walking down the path and into the gulch, we were surprised that within just a few minutes of reaching the bottom, we looked higher on the slopes to the SW and saw a FIVE-STRIPED SPARROW, sitting up high in a shrub. Unmistakeable through the scope (thanks for lugging it down there, Jennie!), it stayed put and within our view for some time, presumably the moisture and weather working in our favor this time, as the bird appeared to be trying to dry itself. Whew-whew, pretty exciting!

The lifer Five-striped Sparrow!
Jennie spots the sparrow from the bottom of the Earth.

We were pretty sure we had a second bird in the same area and then even a third but careful examination revealed that the striped head of that last one belonged to a GREEN-TAILED TOWHEE. We worked further down the gulch, but were frustrated by high water levels, having to remove our shoes once and wade. We observed at least one other FsSp before having to give up due to even more high water in the Gulch without any relief in sight. We retreated and decided to move on to other spots. Climbing up out of the Gulch and just before reaching the top and our car, we were surprised to see a nightjar flying around amongst the small trees and shrubs. Flying and landing and flying again, at one point landing less than 15 ft away and affording us excellent views. Clearly not a nighthawk, it was very dark brown overall and with obvious buff tail corner patches and no white patches under the wings. It appeared to us to be a female BUFF-COLLARED NIGHTJAR, wow, how cool is that to catch one out in the open in the daytime! Made it to the car just as it began to rain heavily. We ate some lunch and began to retreat back towards the east.

The Gulch was really flowing!

Our next stop was Pena Blanca Lake. The water was high and muddy and may have discouraged a lot of water birds, not too many ducks among the coots. We did observe an OSPREY along the far shore at one point. DUSKY-CAPPED FLYCATCHERS were calling, we saw a pretty male WILSON’S and a more surprising LUCY’S WARBLER. We also found a fledgling YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO that was then attended to by an adult, carrying the largest caterpillar I had ever seen. Stuffed it into the little guy’s throat and he couldn’t swallow it for some time. He just sat there with his mouth open, it stuck in his gullet, for several minutes. One more example of fledgling birds still being fed by adults seemingly late into the season this year. Again along this path, we heard male MONTEZUMA QUAIL calling to their flock-mates.

On our way home, we decided we didn’t want the fun to end yet and we make a quick stop at the Amado Ponds to see if we could spot the FORSTER’S TERN that had been reported there earlier. BAM, as we drove up mid-afternoon, there it was flying about the pond. Another life bird for two of our party. Also saw ~10 BLACK-BELLIED WHISTLING DUCKS and one RING-NECKED DUCK along with one DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANT. A great end to a really nice day of birding. Don’t quit yet for the season, there are still a lot of good birds and their behavior to see out there.

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