(Sonoita Inn photo by Kathie 8-3-08; Nikon D80, 18-70mm lens)
The road winds up and down and curves around before leveling off as we roll into Sonoita. We stop at the convenience store to use the restroom and buy a couple of snacks. Gas here in Sonoita is always close to $.50 a gallon more than in Tucson, which is 30 mile away. We are glad we filled up the gas tank yesterday. The Sonoita Inn sits at the east edge of the parking lot, a watcher of this crossroads. I get back in the car and we continue south on Rt. 83. From here on out its all new territory for both of us.
(Elgin vineyards photo by kathie 8-3-08, Nikon D80, 18-70mm lens)We drive through more waving grasses lush from the Monsoon rain. Horses and cattle graze in fenced pastures along both sides of the road. Soon the land starts to buckle into rolling hills. Houses nestle into the hillsides as we gain elevation with each dip and hill. We cross the first of many washes, all with at least a damp skim of water still lying across the road. Soon I spot a vineyard on a particularly high plain and Gus pulls over for me to take some pictures. All around me the blue sky is popping with billowy clouds.
(danaus gilippus photo by Kathie 8-3-08 Nikon D80, 18-70mm lens)
The green grass and red earth provide an interesting contrast. I step out of the car to find a monarch butterfly warming itself on the ground near a puddle. Its orange wings and black body is dotted with white spots. In the vineyard I hear all kinds of birds squawking and chattering and twittering away, but they are hidden in the grapevines and I can’t find a one to identify through my binoculars.
The road takes a 90 degree turn just a mile or less up ahead. It is the first of many 90 degree turns on this road.I get back in the car and we travel on.
Soon green rolling hills give way to oak and juniper hills. Deep ravines now drop off on either side of us. We pass a sign informing us that we have entered the Coronado National Forest. I see a herd of horses grazing along a dirt road that juts off to the right. Gus pulls in and crosses the cattle guard so I can take a picture. The horses continue to graze with foals at their side, unconcerned by our presence. Once Gus turns the car around I hand the camera to him and he is the photographer for the rest of this trip.
(Sky full of Nighthawks photo by Gus 8-3-08; Nikon D80, 70-300mm lens)
We take yet another dog-leg turn and pass the road that goes to the east gate of Fort Huachuca, a military base in Sierra Vista and the location of yet another birding hotspot on my list of places to visit. Garden Canyon can only be accessed from the Fort. According to Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona you have to provide identification and get a pass to bird at this location. But we continue south and as we come up over a rise I see some kind of birds diving and swirling in a large gathering over this plateau. While we have been seeing birds all along the edges of the road as we’ve traveled, the road has been too narrow and winding with no shoulders for us to pull off and observe what we are seeing. Here the road is relatively straight for ¼ mile or so and the pavement is bordered by grassy shoulders and gravel patches. Gus pulls over on the northbound side and we exit the vehicle. My mouth drops open for I cannot believe what I am seeing.
l. Lesser Nighthawk
2. Lesser highthawk
3. Lesser Nighthawk?
(All Nighthawk photos taken by Gus with the 70-300mm lens set in sports mode.)
Above us the sky is whirling with nighthawks. Though it is close to 2 pm. I count at least 35 to 40 birds whirling and diving in the sky. I train my binoculars on them while Gus gets out the camera and starts to shoot. I wonder if I am seeing lesser nighthawks-more common here in AZ, or Common nighthawks, less common but still present here in the southeast corner of the state. The Common Nighthawk is larger with a more pronounced bend to its wing. White bars cross the wing closer to the bend on the Common and closer to the tip on the Lesser. The Common is supposed to have a more forked tail while the Lesser has a white tail band in the males. Both species are more active at night or dawn and dusk, but both can be seen during the day. The Lesser is supposed to be solitary, the Common can form loose flocks when foraging or migrating (Sibley).
4. Lesser or common?
(5. Lesser Nighthawk)(6.Common Nighthawk?)
Well, these birds are flying in the middle of the afternoon is a large, loose flock foraging low over brushland. Some have pointed wings, some have straighter wings. Some have a white band on the tips of their tails, others do not. Some birds call out with a buzzy “pzeent” (Kaufman) or “BEEEzrh” (Sibley) while other birds are silent. I never hear anything like the “rapid, tremulous trill” described in National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America or other bird guides which is how the voice of the Lesser Nighthawk is described. Perhaps I am seeing both.
7. Lesser nighthawk
At the moment I am mesmerized by this whirling flock. Birds dart from all direction. They fly low ever our heads, so close we can hear their wind in their wings. It’s hard to choose a bird to focus on since the flight is so rapid and erratic and their flight paths keep crossing one another. With my mouth open as I stand gaping at the sky I must look like I am trying to catch insects along with the birds. I soon feel the dryness of leaving it open for so long and shut my mouth using only my eyes to look and wonder. Soon the flock moves loosely northward and Gus puts down the camera while I put down my bins.
8. Lesser Nighthawk
“You want a sandwich,” Gus asks? We decide to eat right there on the side of the road. Before we leave the birds make one last foray overhead before disappearing for good. As we continue southward towards our destination we are watching dark clouds gather beyond the mountain ridge. We cross several more washes before reaching a series of switchbacks that lead us up towards Parker Canyon Lake and Forest Rd. 48 which will take us to Sunnyside and Scotia canyons. As we are ascending this final bit of pavement a long stream of cars and campers is heading north down the hill. Just as we reach the top the lightning flashes over head and we hear the roll of thunder in its wake. It’s time to give it up and head back out of the mountains before we are trapped by flooding washes and have to spend the night in our vehicle in the Huachuca mountains.
(Parker Canyon Lake photo by Gus 8-3-08; Nikon D80, 70-300mm lens)
Gus turns around at the Lake View parking lot of Parker Canyon Lake and jumps out to snap a few hasty photos. I spot a Cassin’s kingbird in a tree down slope from where we are parked. Turkey vultures tilt overhead as we jump back in the car. The temperature gauge that is built into our vehicle’s electronics reads 72 degrees. It falls to 70 at one point as we race down the mountainside. We splash through the low flowing water of washes, grateful that is has not risen yet. With the temperature so cool, we have the windows open as well as the sky roof above us. Fresh air pours in and the wind whips our hair every which way. I can see the dark cloud in the rear side mirror. Sometimes I see a lightning strike. I feel as if I am in a dream, or as if I am simultaneously watching a movie and participating in it. Gray light changes to sunlight as we outrun the storm. The temperature rises rapidly once we have passed Sonoita. About 15 miles from home we roll up the windows and turn on the air conditioning once again, but as we drive up the road to Sycamore Canyon a dark cloud looms behind Mt. Fagan. It will be night before the rains reach us, but they do, and when I let the dog out during the night the steamy smell of damp desert is carried in on a breath of air.
Credits: Many thanks to the Kaufman Field Guide to the Birds of North America, The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America and National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America for information used in this blog post.
So, what's your guess about the nighthawks? I'd appreciate opinions and info in trying to decide just what I was seeing today. The birds with the straighter wings and white tail bands are field marks of lesser nighthawks. The bent wings, more strongly barred breasts, and group foraging suggest the Common nighthawk, along with the vocalizations I heard. I've numbered the photos to make commenting easier. I think the top photo may be a Common Nighthawk. Please add your comments below.