We drive up the side of the San Cayentano Mountains to a place I call "Hawk Hill." High on the shoulders of these mountains, I never fail to see a hawk everytime I am here. We first came down on Labor Day, and a red-tailed hawk was perched atop a utility pole tearing some small rodent to shreds then. Today, a far more peaceful scene awaits me as I watch another red-tail circling overhead to the northwest with the Tumacacori mountains beyond.
These mountain slopes are covered with sparse grass, numerous weeds, and a few scrubby mesquite trees. With the lack of tall trees, the birds tend to use the utility poles and wires for lookout perches. Another bird species that frequents these mountains slopes is the Western Kingbird. While I have seen Western Kingbirds before, I have never seen them in such great numbers. Since I am new to this area, I do not know if this is just an autumn phenomenon, or a regular occurrence, but it is not unusual for me to see 8 to 10 Western Kingbirds together down here in Rio Rico.
I have noticed that the humidity is higher in Rio Rico than it is near Tucson. It seems there are more mosquitoes here also, as well as other insects. As I walk around on Hawk Hill I see a flash of motion out of the corner of my eye. I pause and turn to see this ginourmous spider spinning up its morning breakfast! The grasshopper is still alive and struggling. I walk carefully away, glad that I did not walk into the web myself. When I look back the grasshopper is gone and the web has a huge hole in it. Score one for the grasshopper.
We head farther up the mountain and I discover this brilliant orange butterfly on some wildflowers. I am amazed by its coloration for it is black and orange above, but when it closes its wings the strikingly beautiful orange and white body and under-wings are revealed. Nature is full of delightful surprises and hidden secrets, like treasures, waiting to be discovered.
As we head down the mountain I see a large gathering of some raptor-like birds circling over the agricultural fields of Rio Rico. I ask Gus to stop the car so I can identify what I am looking at. We are on a side road with little to no traffic, so I jump out and stand in the middle of the road gazing skyward with my binoculars. However, a man is working outside in his yard right near where I am standing. He starts to walk towards me with a questioning look on his face. I hastily jump back in the car and we continue down the hill to Pendleton Dr. Here the road follows the valley floor and as we round the bend the swirling flock is revealed before us. Gus takes advantage of a dirt road and pulls off to park. I jump from the car with my bins in hand and call to him to grab the camera. As I focus in I search for field marks to identify what I am looking at. The light colored body, dark hood, and dark flight feathers make me think that I am seeing Swainson's hawks. I have read about them gathering in massive flocks during the fall migration period but I have never seen this behavior for myself. Now, standing here on a dirt road in Rio Rico I watch dumbfounded as masses of raptors circle overhead. Then, I notice the dark shapes on the ground in the thick alfalfa. There, walking about like chickens, are more hawks! As we draw near the fence line the birds nervously take to the air. Some continue to circle, but many come to roost on the ground once again, or in the nearby trees that line the far side of the field. Gus snaps away while I search the flock for any aberrant birds. While I do see a few turkey vultures and I hear a distant raven, the majority of birds are Swainson's hawks, adults and juveniles, dark and light morphs. I estimated the flock to be 110 strong. I am underestimating, I am sure, for I counted 50 birds on the ground, and at least as many in the air.
Swainson's hawks dropping from the sky over Rio Rico 10-5-08 by Gus
All the while we are watching hawks this little vermilion flycathcer is watching us from the trees that edge the field on our side. We finally tear ourselves away from the scene and head on down the road. A little more than a mile south I spot a gray shape on top of a dead snag. Once again Gus stops the car and backs up for me to see, but this is a busy road with lots of traffic. He pulls off onto the grassy shoulder and I jump out of the car.
This Gray Hawk watches me warily as I slip a bit closer and snap off a few shots. I am so excited but I don't want to disturb the bird. I also have my sunglasses on, so it isn't until I get home that I realize with frustration the photos are not as clear as I hoped. Still, we had a great time in the outdoors. We saw so many new things today, and I have discovered what I am sure many others already know, that Rio Rico is a very birdy place!
Come back tomorrow to see Gus' best photo posted here for Skywatch Friday!