Saturday, June 15, 2013

Southeast Arizona Day 4: Madera Canyon, Patagonia Lake State Park, and Patons’ yard

This is part 5 of a series of posts about our trip to Southeast Arizona. Click here to go to part 1 for an introduction to our trip.

First stop: Madera Canyon one more time

On the second day of waking up two hours before sunrise, it was hard to feel quite as chipper at breakfast. Nevertheless, the birds must be found!


Me hoping the caffeine kicks in soon at Denny’s in Green Vista, Pima County. March 18, 2013.

We tried to arrive early enough to find Elf Owls before the daylight grew too bright. We were not successful at that, but we did find a few more target birds we had missed the day before, such as this Painted Redstart.


Painted Redstart at Madera Canyon, Pima County. March 18, 2013.

We had lots of other good finds, but none that wanted to pose for their picture. On the way out we spotted this Northern Cardinal, which we had seen several places before, but had been unable to photograph well before.


Northern Cardinal at grasslands below Madera Canyon, Pima County. March 18, 2013.

On the way down to our next stop, we spotted a kettle of 11 Black Vultures near Nogales. They were high enough we were only able to get documentation quality photos. Certainly nothing to frame here, but glad to have evidence of our find.


Black Vulture near Nogales, Santa Cruz county. March 18, 2013.

Second stop: Patagonia Lake State Park

Patagonia Lake State Park was one of the destinations I was most excited to visit. This is the place Sandy Komito chased his Nutting’s Flycatcher on the morning of the first day of his record setting Big Year. This place is also home to the Elegant Trogon, a tropical bird unlike anything else in the U.S., that breeds in this park as one of the northernmost points of its range. I’ve read quite a few stories of other birders chasing the Elegant Trogon at Patagonia with envy. This is another one of those legendary birds in a legendary place, and I was thrilled for the chance to chase it.

Ellen bird book Ellen studying up during her flight, with an Elegant Trogon featured on the cover of one of our guide books.

I have to admit, when we first arrived I was a little disappointed. After reading stories about chasing a rare tropical bird here, I had always imagined it to be a lush, tropical-feeling oasis. I was surprised to find it’s actually a dry, dusty, mostly barren irrigation reservoir in the middle of the desert. Hardly an oasis to you or I, but the birds see a source of water and shelter in the middle of all this dry, desert heat as their own little paradise.


Patagonia Lake State Park, Santa Cruz County. March 18, 2013.

The park is quite popular with the RV campers, many of whom are birders. One particular couple had set up quite the array of feeders to attract birds to their campsite. Their feeders attracted a number of species that are quite common in Idaho during the right parts of the year, such as Yellow-rumped Warblers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Red-winged Blackbirds, Pine Siskins, House Finches, and others, but it was nice to see some of these birds, such as Bullocks Oriole, months before they’ll arrive in Idaho.


Bullocks Oriole at Patagonia Lake State Park, Santa Cruz county. March 18, 2013.

Other highlights at the feeders included a Verdin sipping from a hummingbird feeder, and a Broad-billed Hummingbird.


Verdin at Patagonia Lake State Park, Santa Cruz county. March 18, 2013.


Broad-billed Hummingbird at Patagonia Lake State Park, Santa Cruz County. March 18, 2013.

The owners of the camper knew that most birders who visit Patagonia will be trying for the Elegant Trogon, and were kind enough to let us know they had seen it that same morning, and gave us some direction for where to find it. There’s a creek that feeds into the reservoir from the east, and the Elegant Trogon had been hanging out a little shy of a mile up that creek from the camping area.  The woods on the way were dripping with a variety of flycatchers and other passerines that wouldn’t sit still for their picture. This Bewick’s Wren was just a bit more obliging than most.


Bewick’s Wren at Patagonia Lake State Park, Santa Cruz county. March 18, 2013.

We were too excited to find the Trogon to really give proper attention to all the other great birds we were seeing. Luckily we were far enough into our trip that we had seen many of them already, so the pressure to spend a lot of time on each one was diminished. Each time we passed another group of birders we would ask if they had been able to find the Trogon. It was about 50/50, which had us both encouraged and discouraged at the same time. It was good to know that it was definitely in the area, but a little worrying that so many others had nevertheless been unable to find it.

After a while, we ran into one birder that said he had seen it less than 5 minutes earlier. We were close! He gave a great description for where to look, indicating that he had seen it at about eye level, in the shadows behind a large oak tree in a recess in the ridge that runs along the creek. He warned us not to get too close though, since there was a large beehive in the tree that would not take kindly to our proximity.

Patagonia oak tree

Me scanning the oak tree for any Trogon-like shadows. Patagonia Lake State Park, Santa Cruz county. March 18, 2013.

We arrived at what we thought was the location after ten more minutes of searching. No immediate sign of the Trogon, so we scanned a little ways up and down the trail looking for other trees that might fit the description. This still looked like the best spot, so we decided to stake it out. We were already tired, since this was our third hike of the day, it was the hottest part of the afternoon, and we hadn’t brought any water with us. Still, we stayed put, determined not to miss one of the biggest prizes we were hoping for on our Arizona trip.

Several other groups of birders came and went, asking us if we’d been able to find it. We shared the information we’d received, that it had recently been seen in this area. We outlasted most of the others that stopped by. Perhaps being a third of most of their ages worked out to our advantage in terms of stamina. There are some distinct advantages to being young in an old person’s hobby!

Finally, after baking under the sun for what felt like hours, a flash of green lifted up out of the shadows and landed right back in them. After tracing its path we found a Trogon like silhouette in the trees, and knew we had finally found our bird!


Trogon-like silhouette at Patagonia Lake State Park, Santa Cruz county. March 18, 2013.

We were really hoping this wouldn’t be our only view. We didn’t come this far to only come home with a blurry silhouette picture. After a few minutes, the bird hopped to another perch. The light was a bit better, but it was far more obscured.


Watermelon rind, or Elegant Trogon? Patagonia Lake State Park, Santa Cruz county. March 18, 2013.

This still wasn’t the soul-satisfying view we were hoping for. So we waited, and waited some more. A little while later, it moved to another perch. Much better!


Elegant Trogon at Patagonia Lake State Park, Santa Cruz county. March 18, 2013.

At this point we were happy we got to see and photograph this wonderful bird. But more can’t hurt, right?


Elegant Trogon at Patagonia Lake State Park, Santa Cruz county. March 18, 2013.

Full-frontal. Now the party’s getting started!


Elegant Trogon at Patagonia Lake State Park, Santa Cruz county. March 18, 2013.

Tired and satisfied, we headed back to the car for some much needed hydration. Mission accomplished!

Third stop: Patons’ Yard

We squeezed in one more stop that afternoon, and this one was meant to be the antidote to our long hot hike at Patagonia. We visited the Patons’ yard where we let the birds come to us for a change. For years, the Patons have maintained a large number of bird feeders on their property, and after being recognized as perhaps the best place in the U.S. to find Violet-crowned Hummingbirds, have graciously made their yard available to the public. It has since become an important stop for most birders passing through this area.

Patons' house

The Patons’ house in Patagonia, with the feeders around the back. Santa Cruz county. March 18, 2013.

They have placed several rows of seating and an awning in the back yard for guests. Tubs of bird guides on the tables provide assistance to anybody who didn’t bring their own.

Patons' yard seating

Patons’ yard, Santa Cruz county. March 18, 2013.

Their feeders provided great viewing opportunities for many of Arizona’s specialties, including Gila Woodpecker, White-winged Dove, and Pyrrhuloxia.


Gila Woodpecker in Patons’ yard, Santa Cruz county. March 18, 2013.


White-winged Dove in Patons’ yard, Santa Cruz county. March 18, 2013.


Pyrrhuloxia in Patons’ yard, Santa Cruz county. March 18, 2013.

At one point, a Coopers Hawk flew over the yard, which sent everything scrambling. Coopers particularly enjoy dining on songbirds, and the songbirds know it, so they got out of town and keep their beaks shut until all signs of danger are gone. Finally after watching an empty yard for a while, the birds started to come back out. After 45 minutes of waiting for the Violet-crowned Hummingbird to make an appearance, it finally showed up, and after seeing it we were ready to call it a day.


Violet-crowned Hummingbird in Patons’ yard, Santa Cruz county. March 18, 2013.

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