Friday, June 14, 2013

Southeast Arizona Day 3: Madera Canyon

This is part 4 of a series of posts about our trip to Southeast Arizona. Click here to go to part 1 for an introduction to our trip.

Madera Canyon was one of the highlights of the trip. We had pre-planned our itinerary for the entire trip but after visiting Madera Canyon on day 3 we decided to squeeze in another half-day on day 4. What an amazing place! This is a little north of Nogales, but we still found a Denny’s to have breakfast at an hour before sunrise, while celebrating the fact that we were pretty close to living the same story that The Big Year opens with.

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Me enjoying a little homework over breakfast at Denny’s in Green Vista, Pima County. March 17, 2013.

After scarfing down our breakfast and trying not to get too bogged down with all the sounds we were hearing (and wanting to stop for) on the way over, we arrived at the grasslands below Madera Canyon just as the sun was rising. We had just read over breakfast the foreword that Kenn Kaufmann had written for one of our southeast Arizona guide books. He describes how he’s been to Madera Canyon hundreds of times, and his heart still races every time he turns the corner on that little road out in the desert and Madera Canyon appears right in front of him.

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Grasslands below Madera Canyon, Pima County. March 17, 2013.

Our first great find happened before we even made it to the canyon. On the way in we spotted a meadowlark, the Western variety of which is quite abundant throughout western North America. However, there’s also an Eastern variety, which has a rare subspecies called Lilian’s Meadowlark. With how abundant Western Meadowlarks are, and how incredibly rare Eastern Meadowlarks are this far west, it’s easy to just assume every meadowlark you see is a Western. Well in the spirit of “anything is possible” in southeast Arizona, we gave our first meadowlark a little extra scrutiny on our way in, and noticed the tell-tale field mark: the extensive white on the cheeks, which would not be present on a Western or even typical Eastern meadowlark. This was our lifer Lilian’s Meadowlark. Not a bad start to the day!

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Eastern (Lilian’s) Meadowlark at grasslands below Madera Canyon, Pima County. March 17, 2013.

When we arrived in the canyon our first stop was Whitehouse Picnic area, where we got out and enjoyed an hour or so of walking before the day got too hot to be out in the sun. We were treated to a Hepatic Tanager. These guys love to sing from the tops of dead snags on steep slopes just below the tops of mesas. We’d heard of them being spotted every so often in southern Colorado, and the stories that surrounded how they were found always made them sound like an exciting bird to chase. This one was an early arrival, as this species doesn’t typically arrive in the southern U.S. until the end of March or April.

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Hepatic Tanager at Madera Canyon, Pima County. March 17, 2013.

This next bird really demonstrates the “anything can happen” feeling that you get birding in a place like this. We found a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker at the Whitehouse Picnic area. Madera Canyon is great for reliably finding birds you can’t find anywhere else, but this record was rare even for here. If I remember right there are only a handful of accepted Yellow-bellied Sapsucker records in Madera Canyon, so it was a treat to arrive there at the right time to see one of the few that come through the area.

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Yellow-bellied Sapsucker at Madera Canyon, Pima County. March 17, 2013.

On a quick run back into town for some fuel and lunch, we spotted a few other great birds along the road, including a Greater Roadrunner and a Phainopepla. I really wanted to see a Phainopepla after learning of them just because they have a weird name.

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Greater Roadrunner at grasslands below Madera Canyon, Pima County. March 17, 2013.

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Phainopepla at grasslands below Madera Canyon, Pima County. March 17, 2013.

When we were living in Colorado, we made a special pre-sunrise trek 3 hours south to Chico Basin Ranch to try to find Ladder-backed Woodpeckers. In Arizona, we spotted them just casually bouncing around the trees in town while grabbing a quick bite to eat. It’s always a little strange to see a bird you’ve worked so hard to find in the past just hanging out in somebody’s front yards.

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Ladder-backed Woodpecker in Green Valley on a quick pit stop back to town, Pima County. March 17, 2013.

Back up to Madera Canyon, we took another hike, this time on a trail that wound from the middle of the canyon, around the backside of a small peak, and then came out at the lodge at the top of the canyon.

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Ellen on the nature trail in Madera Canyon, Pima County. March 17, 2013.

As the day progressed the paved road up the canyon became more and more crowded with other birders from all over the country, so it was nice to get away from the crowds and enjoy some birds by ourselves. The woods on the back side of the trail were lousy with Arizona Woodpeckers.

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Arizona Woodpecker in Madera Canyon, Pima County. March 17, 2013.

As we neared the end of the trail we spotted this Magnificent Hummingbird enjoying the shade.

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Magnificent Hummingbird at Madera Canyon, Pima County. March 17, 2013.

We came down the canyon via the paved road, and stopped to enjoy a rest at the feeders set up at the Santa Rita Lodge. Surprisingly the feeders were dominated by species that are quite common, such as Lesser Goldfinch, House Finch, and Pine Siskins, but the hummingbird feeders did have quite a few Broad-billed Hummingbirds.

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Broad-billed Hummingbird in Madera Canyon, Pima County. March 17, 2013.

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