Fan-tailed Warbler

Fan-tailed Warbler

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Santa Rita Mountains Visit

One thing that I really enjoy since I retired and think I have a bit more free time on my hands, is to assist out-of-state avian enthusiasts find some of the wonderful and special birds that Arizona has to offer.  Recently, I was put into contact with one of these birders, through a mutual friend, Jennifer Rycenga.

Michael Gertz and his family was moving from San Francisco to Ohio, and Mike was going to drive to Ohio via Arizona, while his family was flying to Ohio.  We made arrangements to meet in Madera Canyon as I thought that would be the easiest place to use as a base camp for the day and a half that I had to spare and the place he might see the biggest diversity of our avian wonders.  What I quickly discovered is that Mike is an excellent birder.  He has a very good ear and a very quick eye.  He does not miss much when it comes to birding and he has studied his birds well and needed very little assistance from someone like me.  It is always fun to watch birders new to Arizona react to some of these new birds they get to witness.

After spending some time at the feeders at Santa Rita Lodge, and racking up some birds for Mike, we headed to Florida Canyon.  This past winter, several reports with photographs indicated that a male Elegant Trogon had been seen fairly frequently near the parking area.  I knew there were possibilities for other birds in this location as well and even though it was already afternoon, we decided to check it out.  We did not find the Elegant Trogon when we arrived and when we returned from the hike, so that was a miss.  However, we did have some success on the trail.  At one point, we had stopped on the trail and while we were talking, we noticed something move in the dry grass about 3 feet in front of us.  Did not get a good look so was not sure what it might be, but just a few seconds after the first movement, a second and a third critter moved and that was when we caught a good glimpse of them:  3 Montezuma Quail, rustling away in the undercover of the dried grass!  This is not always an easy bird to detect, so every viewing of one is pretty exciting.  Obviously, we were not able to get photos, but the next bird along the trail was a different story.

We had detected a gnatcatcher, and knowing that this location is a good spot for Black-capped Gnatcatcher, I had a hunch this was our bird.  (Although, we did have a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher calling earlier on along the trail.)  Arizona is about the only reliable spot in the United States to see Black-capped Gnatcatcher, and we not only got to see it and photograph a nice male, we also got to witness it in the construction of a new nest.

Black-capped Gnatcatcher

Black-capped Gnatcatcher - Nest Construction

With daylight waning, we decided to call it a day, but as dusk arrived in Madera Canyon, the calls of the Whiskered Screech Owls kept us entertained.  We even hiked up one of the trails in the dark, but they did not cooperate with us by showing themselves.

The next morning, our target was the Madera Picnic area as regular reports were coming in daily of a pair of Hepatic Tanagers were visiting the spot.  It was just a short drive to the spot, but what greeted us on the road was really quite amazing.  A Hog-nosed Skunk had apparently laid claim to the road was was sauntering down the road and pretty much staying in the middle on the double yellow lines.

 Hog-nosed Skunk

(Follow the yellow brick road.)

Once we reached the picnic area, it was just a matter of waiting for the sun to rise up over the mountains in the east.  Once that happened, then the female Hepatic Tanager flew in and followed shortly thereafter by the male.

 Hepatic Tanager - Female

 Hepatic Tanager - Male

From here I had decided to go the Patagonia Lake State Park; another spot where the Elegant Trogon has been known to spend the winter.  This place was very birdy and we had a hard time keeping to our schedule to look for the trogon, as witnessed by these next 2 photos of a Vesper Sparrow and a Broad-billed Hummingbird that we found as we headed towards the trail.  

 Broad-billed Hummingbird

Vesper Sparrow

Along the trail as we headed down, we met a few birders that were headed back up and they had informed us that they had seen the trogon and they gave us an idea as to where they had seen it.  One of the birders mentioned that there were still more birders down there watching it so it would be easy to find.  We arrived in the general area that they had mentioned and all we found was an older couple sitting on a bench looking out at the lake, so I asked them if they had seen the trogon and they said yes, they had and that it took off into a ravine back behind them and were the last to see it.  So much for getting it easy and handed to us on a silver platter.  

So the two of us headed back into the drainage area where this couple advised it had flown.  We split up a bit and were checking out any and all trees.  A Northern Cardinal male had flown into an evergreen green and was incessantly calling and singing.   I tried to ignore it, but it finally got the best of me and I went to take a look at it.  Boy did that bright red bird stand out in the shade in that evergreen.  But wait, off to the left, I noticed another splotch of red in the tree and its sure was not another cardinal.  I quickly called out to Mike to let him know that I had found it and he did not waste any time in getting there.  It was rather deep in the trees, but we found an angle that provided us some good views and photos.  We did not want to approach it any closer and cause it to fly.  Not sure that it would have as it was busily preening itself and seemed unconcerned with us.  By that time we had attracted another birder that also came in to watch and get photos.  This bird is probably one of the most sought after birds in the United States and Arizona is one of the best places to find it.

Elegant Trogon

Success in finding such a special bird is always an exciting thing and I knew this just made my day.  Even I enjoy seeing this bird anytime I can.  We had one more stop to make and that was at Paton's in Patagonia where we were going to try locating a Violet-crowned Hummingbird.  This spot is probably the most reliable spot for this hummingbird from Mexico, that just barely makes its range into the United States.  When we arrived, the other birders that were there advised us that it had been coming in and had a favorite feeder so we tried keeping our eyes on that feeder while also watching all the other birds come and go.  It did not take long for Mike to spy its arrival on its preferred feeder.
Violet-crowned Hummingbird

We then returned to Madera Canyon and Santa Rita Lodge as we planned to both depart early the next morning.  I was heading home to Mesa and Mike was headed to some other spots in Arizona before heading out to Ohio.  In the short time that I spent with Mike, he had accumulated 16 new lifers, but he got many more on his own at other spots.  On our return to Madera Canyon, the Wild Turkeys were still present including one Tom that was putting on a display.  Later as dusk settled in, the Whiskered Screech Owls began calling again and on this second night Elf Owls started calling as they had returned as well.  Mike caught a brief look at one of the Elf Owls, so it was a fitting end to our adventure.

 Wild Turkey - Hen

Wild Turkey - Tom

Mike is an exceptional birder and with his new residence in Ohio, he is going to have a very interesting spring and summer with all the new eastern birds that he will be exposed to this year.  Who knows, maybe someday in the future our paths will cross and I will have an opportunity to go birding with him again.  



  1. So glad you two had a good time, with great birds! Congratulations to Mike on all the lifers, and to Gordon for all these great pictures!

    1. Thanks Jennifer!

      I really enjoy showing people some of the fantastic birds that Arizona has to offer.

  2. Nice write up. I'm new to Arizona, I live in Gilbert. I have a friend who is going to be in Tucson that last week of April and he wants to go birding down there. Would you mind giving some advice on what to do with one day in that area?

    Thank you.

    I blog at I'm waiting on a new birding lens, so my posts are pretty sporadic.

    1. Hi Steve and thanks for your comments. I suppose that if I had one day only for birding in southeast Arizona, I would suggest Madera Canyon and vicinity. But there are a lot of options. If he has target birds, then it might be a bit different. I just sent you a friend request on FB. It might be easier to correspond via Messenger.


  3. Pretty birds!!! But that skunk!!!!! I love my skunks!!!

  4. Outstanding photos! I especially loved that Hog-nosed Skunk. It is one that I really would love to see. We haven't met, but I have noticed that you bird often with Tommy DeBardeleben. He's a great guy! Also, if you don't mind, would you check out my blog?

    I appreciate it and I hope to meet you in the field someday!

  5. So glad you found the Trogon. We travelled from England last year hoping to see him, having been to Arizona and loved it several times. We found him on 25th March 2015 by the stream. He certainly isn't easily frightened as a bird walk turned up a bit later and he wasn't at all concerned ! We loved seeing the male turkeys doing their dance at Santa Rita Lodge - a bit like our black grouse "lekking". All the best from Tamworth, ancient capital of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia.

  6. Beautiful and glorious series of captures! Thank you so much for sharing.