I am leaving the Sonoran Desert and driving east to Portal, Arizona on Tuesday, May 25th. The sun is glaring in my face as I drive the sun-bleached asphalt through Benson, Wilcox and into New Mexico. It is taking me longer to get there than I thought it would. I am meeting Donna Simonetti and Bosque Bill at the Portal store for a day or two of birding. While I have been through Portal one time before with Gus, I have never actually birded there. I have also never met Bosque Bill or Donna Simonetti but feel comfortable meeting them since they were part of the Birders who Blog, Tweet and Chirp Expedition that Dawn Fine organized while she was here in southeast Arizona. I was supposed to be part of that adventure, but it took place at the same time Gus and I headed to Kentucky to see our new granddaughter and so I missed out. It was Donna who invited me along and I decided to take my chances.
I get off the highway in Road Forks New Mexico and point my car south. The road curves off towards the mountains before straightening out and heading towards Rodeo. Above me the clear blue sky beckons and urges me on. It isn’t long before I lose all cell phone reception. I am alone and on my own.
The Portal road turns west about 2 miles north of Rodeo. I drive the few miles to the Portal Peak Lodge and find Donna and Bill waiting for me in front of the Portal Store. Donna and Bill are ready to be off since I am at least an hour late. We quickly move my gear and my cooler into Donna’s vehicle, then I hop in and we start to get acquainted on the drive to South Fork.
Donna drives west into Cave Creek Canyon past rocky spires and huge cliffs. The wide open desert quickly gives way to shady forest as we head up the road. A few miles later and we are taking the turn to South Fork which Donna says is the best place to see the Trogon. The Trogon is a bird that has eluded me ever since I moved to SE Arizona. Though I have searched for it in Patagonia and Madera Canyon, I have yet to see it and add it to my Life List. So, she parks the car and we all jump out with cameras and binoculars looking for all the world like a National Geographic Expedition!
The trail before us is shady and cool climbing through sycamore and pines along a bubbling creek. At first it is quiet save for our footfalls but then we hear it, the call of the trogon! Within seconds it actually flies in before us and perches high on a limb with twigs in its face. All I can see are its back and belly as I try to photograph this bird that has eluded me for so long. As we all snap away the bird gets restless and flies off down the canyon. Well, at least I got to see it, I think and then the female flies in and lands on a branch where I have a better view but poor lighting. She is even more skittish than the male and I only get off 2 blurry shots before she is gone. Lifer number 1 of the day!
So up the trail we wander, our pace casual, our necks and ears straining for sight and sound of birds. We see them in little groups, a tanager here, a nuthatch there, a brown creeper climbing the bark of a tree. Brown Creeper South Fork, Cave Creek Canyon 5-25-10
At the creek we find a thrush and start snapping away, for a Swainson’s Thrush was supposedly seen here yesterday. It is much rarer than the usual Hermit thrush.
I am not well aquatinted with Swainson’s thrush and so don’t even know how to distinguish one from the other, so I snap and snap and snap hoping to figure it all out later.
There are flycatchers everywhere and we try to sort them out. I believe we are seeing Western Wood Pewees, one after the other, but we keep hoping for something else.
High in the tree tops I catch a brief glimpse of a small bird with a yellow throat and black streaking on its sides. I believe I am seeing my first Grace’s warbler, but it too moves off before I can get a shot off. Lifer No. 2! This birding in the trees is tricky stuff! I have been spoiled by my open desert birds. But Oh, how beautiful it all is! for me I am transported to the forests of New England and I feel like a child again with sun sparkles dancing around me and the soft carpet of leaves and pine needles beneath my feet. I feel like a bird in her nest. I feel peaceful and safe.
We wander farther up and cross the creek once more but it is getting quieter and quieter and so we decide to turn around and head back down to see what else we can see. By now it is after noontime and Bill and I are getting hungry. Donna is ready to just move on but we convince her to take a brief break and let us eat.
It is a good thing we do for the Painted Redstarts fly into the picnic area and we all get a good view. Of course, the raucous Mexican Jays greet us right away and follow us about hoping for handouts, but I do not oblige them. Suddenly we hear the trogon once again and Donna and I drop everything and follow the sound of its voice. It is Donna who finally spots it on a limb and this time I get a better view and a better shot. We both take quite a few pictures before the bird flies off and we decide to move on.
From there Donna takes us to the Southwest Research station. Bill is not feeling well, so he sits in the shade near the hummingbird feeders while Donna and I wander around. Before we leave the feeder area, however, we sit or stand and wait for the Blue-throated hummingbird to arrive. It soon does and once again I snap several photos, most of them as seen from below as the bird preens on its perch in a poplar tree. Lifer no. 3!
Donna takes me for a stroll through the meadow and along the creek hunting for the buff-breasted flycatcher she saw here yesterday but though we look and look all we find are a lone robin and yet another western wood pewee.
As we head back towards the car where Bill is waiting in front of the gift shop I have to laugh at this sign that is posted on the wall of the store. Is drinking really a problem up here?
Then, it is off up the road to the Herb Martyr Campground where all we see are warbling vireos and yellow columbine growing next to the creek. By now it is almost evening. We decide to head to Portal and to Dave Jasper’s house and bird feeders in the Big Thicket area. While we see a few birds here apparently there are not as many as there were this morning. On our way there, however, we stop in the middle of the road to photograph a Zone-tailed hawk flying with a flock of Turkey Vultures.
After dinner at the Portal Store Bill decides to retire early but Donna and I grab our bins and cameras and head down Portal Main Street for a big surprise. We walk past the small library and post office to a playground area where we turn to look high in a sycamore tree. A small crowd has gathered with us in the gloaming and we are all staring at a small dark hole in a limb. What could we be waiting for at this time of night?
Soon the bird peeks out the hole, and then she starts to call to her mate. It is a soft and odd sound that I can’t quite describe but she calls again and again, then retreats.
Finally, without warning, the little Elf Owl comes to the edge of the hole and takes flight, disappearing into the gray-blue darkness while Great-horned Owls call behind and before us. How amazing it is to see and hear the largest owl in the United States in the same vicinity as the smallest owl. The Elf Owl is a *Life Bird for me and the 4th one of the day.
Donna graciously offered to let me stay in her room with her, so we head back to the Portal Peak Lodge where bats hunt bugs around the outdoor lights and Donna and I pour over our day’s photos with questions flying around the room, “ Was that a Swainson’s thrush?” “What was that flycatcher?” “What bird is this?” as Donna shows me a photo of a female varied bunting she took yesterday. It is hard to go to sleep with so much birding to do, but finally we give in because tomorrow we are getting up with the birds!
Birds seen in Portal and Cave Creek Canyon today:
- Gambel’s Quail
- zone-tailed hawk
- Turkey vulture
- Mourning dove
- White-winged dove
- Blue-throated hummingbird*
- Great-horned Owl
- Elf Owl*
- Acorn woodpecker
- Northern Flicker
- Say’s Phoebe
- Western Wood pewee
- Cassin’s Kingbird
- Dusky-capped flycatcher
- Plumbeous vireo
- Warbling Vireo
- Mexican jay
- White-breasted nuthatch
- Brown Creeper
- Cactus Wren
- Bewick’s Wren
- Curve-billed thrasher
- American Robin
- Hermit thrush
- Elegant Trogon*
- Painted Redstart
- Black-throated gray warbler
- Grace’s Warbler*
- Black-throated sparrow
- Hepatic Tanager
- Western Tanager
- Black-headed grosbeak
- Northern Cardinal
- Scott’s Oriole
- Brown-headed Cowbird
- Lesser goldfinch
- House finch
*Life Bird: first time seeing this species in my life!