Fan-tailed Warbler

Fan-tailed Warbler

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Pima Canyon: A Visit With a Focus

This past Saturday, October 10th, I volunteered to lead a birding trip for the Maricopa Audubon Society.  I had been contacted a few months ago and I selected this place as it was a place I knew very well and I listed it as a great place for beginners to learn about desert birds and their calls and songs.  What I ended up with was a team of 4 individuals that were excellent birders in their own right.  One of them was from Ohio and in Arizona for the weekend and another was a person new to the Phoenix area and the other 2 were locals that were excellent birders with additional knowledge about the flora and other fauna.  The other 4 members of the team consisted of Virgil Troyer, Laurie Nessel, Joe Chernek, and Joy Bell.  What a great team we had assembled.  It turned out to be an excellent outing.  Doesn't this photo look like a great group?


We started early in the morning, with an objective of trying to locate a couple of nocturnal birds.  One was the Common Poorwill that I hear at almost every visit while it is still dark, and the other was maybe an owl.  Well the Common Poorwills definitely made a liar out of me as they did not give one call during the darkness.  However, we had a little bit better luck with the owl.  When we approached the area where I had seen them last, I caught a glimpse of one flying from one tree to another in the dark in front of us.  At that point I felt good, but shortly started to think the one I saw had disappeared since we had 5 people with flashlights.  Slowly and quietly we moved up the wash a bit and I was scanning the trees with my flashlight and I caught a glimpse of one about 15 yards ahead of us. I tuned the flashlight down quickly and made sure the rest of the team was along side of me and I lifted the light and there it sat on a limb of a palo verde tree and everyone got to see it good in the light.  It was fairly cooperative for us and sat there for some time so that the entire team got great views of it.  This was a life bird for a couple of them.  Now I felt better about the early start and I think the rest were pleased as well.

This was not a trip for me to focus on a lot of photos; I was more concerned that when we found a bird, that everyone got good views of it.  And as usual, some of those birds made that a bit of a challenge, but for the most part, I think we succeeded in getting a good look by everyone.  Not a lot of photos of birds in the blog, but some other interesting photos will be included.

Curve-billed Thrashers were abundant as they always are, and as much as I wanted to find a Bendire's Thrasher, I could not turn this one into Bendire's.

Curve-billed Thrasher

We actually found 3 species of woodpeckers; Gila and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers and also great looks at Gilded Flickers.  Three species of woodpecker in a dry desert wash is a very nice count.  The wrens must have not like that idea because we ended up with 4 species of wren, 3 of which I expected; Rock, Cactus, and Canyon.  The 4th species was the Bewick's Wren which is not a rare bird by any means, but just not that common in this type of habitat.  Only the Canyon Wren gave us close up views and it just happens to be my favorite wren in the United States.

 Canyon Wren

We were also blessed to find find a couple of Townsend's Warblers.  Most of the warblers have now passed through on migration, but some such as this one is still showing up.  By now they have escaped the snow and ice of the Pacific Northwest where they breed and they can make a leisurely trip further south for the winter.  So glad they pass through Arizona in the spring and the fall!

 Townsend's Warbler

As we approached the parking lot on our return, a juvenile White-crowned Sparrow was foraging in the damp sand below us in the wash and was not at all stressed by our presence.  This species is a migrant that spends its winter in the lower elevations of Arizona and beyond.

 White-crowned Sparrow (gambelii) - Juvenile

We had now returned to to our starting point and Laurie had pointed out an Elephant Tree on one of the upper slopes, so 4 of us went to investigate while one had to leave and head to work.  At the tree we studied its leaf structure as a male Phainopepla flew over the ridge and as we got ready to head back down into the wash to go to the parking lot on the other side, Virgil, with an eagle eye, spotted a Spotted Towhee down in the wash, which peaked my interest as I do not recall ever seeing this species in this location in the past.  It is not a rare bird for Arizona by any means, but the location really is not the most ideal habitat for it.  The four of us scrambled down and into the wash to check out the shrubs it had disappeared into and by surrounding the shrubs, it finally flew out and it was unmistakable as a Spotted Towhee.  Once I got home, I looked up my records and sure enough this was a new species for my patch, Pima Canyon Wash.  This was my 100th species for this location and quite a milestone for me.  Wonder how many more I will be able to add in the future. Thanks to Virgil for spotting it and thanks to Laurie and Joe, for helping to flush it out of the shrubs.

At this point, Laurie and Virgil headed out and Joe and I decided to make a quick stop to check out the Pima Canyon Wash where it meets up with the golf course.  We found a second Loggerhead Shrike that was a bit more cooperative and allowed better and closer views.

Loggerhead Shrike

A little more exploring and Joe eyed a flycatcher, and of course it had to be one of those species that belong to the empidonax family that can be difficult to ID.  I remember when I first started birding and found some of these birds; I was at a loss in identifying them and decided there is no way I will ever be able to figure them out.  But guess what?  After a few years of dedicated birding, I have learned to identify many of them.  Still miss a few because of poor looks and other factors, but I had this one pegged while observing it in the field, a Dusky Flycatcher.  The photos do help to confirm the identity, so it goes to show that with a lot of exposure and learning from many of the old time experts, many of these empids can be identified.

 Dusky Flycatcher

Dusky Flycatcher

Having Laurie along was a great benefit as she taught me much about a lot of the plant life out there and she knew to look into rock cracks and crevices because she did locate one of the local Chuckwallas that are found here and with the assistance of a flashlight everyone was able to peer into the crack to view it.  We also had other lizards including the one below, which is a Clark's Spiny Lizard.  The barring on the forelimbs is a key field mark for Clark's Spiny Lizard.

Clark's Spiny Lizard

Another point of interest was some of the petroglyphs that were visible to those not familiar with Arizona.  These can be found at various spots in South Mountain Park.  They were the original artwork of the Hohokam people that lived in this area about 700 years ago.

What an enjoyable hike with great company, and I think all had a great time and lot of knowledge was learned by all.  Our final tally of bird species was 34 which is a very good count for this location.  Can't wait to lead more walks like this.  Thank you Maricopa Audubon for allowing me to take part in your field trips this fall; I hope to do more in the the future.