Thursday, May 12, 2016

Wrenegades Wreck It! – Birdathon 2016 Report

By Matt Griffiths

From first bird to last (Franklin’s Gull to Harris’s Hawk), my Birdathon this year was a whirlwind of movement and great bird sightings. The Wrenegades found 174 separate species in about 21 hours of birding all over southeastern Arizona!

With some last minute route wrangling, we decided to start this year in the late afternoon in Willcox, and boy did it pay off. The lake outside town was filled with birds we don’t normally get on our Birdathons: gulls and shorebirds, and a new bird for me, Semipalmated Plover. The surrounding grasslands and marsh area provided many more species, including a family of Scaled Quail, and we left town with something like 70 species and full bellies (Thanks Isabel’s South of the Border!).

Our plan now called for us to tour some Tucson water reclamation ponds and city parks at night, a task that required spotlights and possibly switchblades. Our safety aside, we managed to see and rile up a few more birds but none of the local riff raff. I knew Columbus Park had trees full of roosting cormorants, but the late night fisher people enjoying bon fires on the shore was a new one.

After a short rest break we started up again in the wee hours joined by our leader, Jennie, who had to pull a late shift and sadly missed our Willcox trip. Now we were back to familiar territory as we motored up most of Mt. Lemmon’s 9000 ft of cactus to forest life zones. We picked up five of our seven owls, but surprisingly no nightjars, and plunked down in the doug firs to await the dawn chorus. Steller’s Jays, House Wrens, Red-faced Warblers and American Robins defy logic and once again start their songs at the faintest glimmer of light. We spot a Zone-tailed Hawk nest after their cries echo through the trees and then head to Summerhaven with hope of seeing the uncommon for us, Common Grackle. After grackle-less bagels, we hit a few stops on the top of the mountain, and despite the multitudes of forest campers, manage to find two birds our Birdathons have missed recently: Virginia’s Warbler and Arizona Woodpecker.

On the way now to the grasslands of Las Cienegas, we pick up most of the classic Sonoran desert species, except perhaps the most-classic, Greater Roadrunner. The grasslands aren’t the revelatory experience they were last year, but rest assured we found some cool sparrows and a pair of White-tailed Kites!

I was excited for our next stops in the funky town of Patagonia. After spending a good deal of time there in the past year as part of the team restoring the grounds of the Paton Center for Hummingbirds, I hadn’t been back in months as that part of my job was phased out (There’s a pond now!). It was great fun to sit in the quaint backyard, chatting with visitors from around the US and seeing the Paton’s bird de jour, the Violet-crowned Hummingbird. Those same visitors must have thought it strange when, instead of relaxing more with the amazing variety of birds, we bolted out of there after a few minutes with a “Good birding!” to all within earshot.

With a Thick-billed Kingbird but no Rock Wren from the Roadside Rest, we rolled downhill to the Santa Cruz River in Tubac. Always a good time in the cottonwoods and willows along the water, this is where we meander after 21 hours of birding catches up with us, and we don’t mind! Birding by ear becomes important here as many of the birds hide in the brush or high up in the trees. A kingfisher is heard off in the distance, Gray Hawks fill the air with tropical cries, and MacGillivray’s Warblers give their harsh calls but are never seen.

The clock is ticking down now. We search fruitlessly for that roadrunner but instead find a Costa’s Hummingbird in the desert of Green Valley. And what, no Black-bellied Whistling Ducks at Amado pond?! There are always the “easy” birds that get away during every Birdathon. No Pie-billed Grebes this year, when usually every pond you visit has at least a couple of these common birds. We should have also seen Black Vultures at some point, so we scan the skies on the way to our last stop, a Harris’s Hawk nest we have been hipped to. Even after we see one hawk perched up in the giant eucalyptus tree it calls home, we still scan the skies on the way home.

No Black Vultures ever turn up, but 174 other bird species do! We have hope, and are already planning, that with a little more luck 180 species is easy and will be our goal for next year!

Thanks to all my Birdathon supporters this year and other years! Thanks to the Wrenegades: Jennie, Tim, Sara, Corey and Chris!

Donations are still being taken this week. Why not support a team of your choice at this link:

Or support Matt Griffiths and the Wrenegades here:

Barn Owl by Chris Rohrer

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