Monday, November 19, 2007

Madera Canyon Birding

The past few weeks have been busy with many birding adventures. On November 6th I awoke early to go on my first birding trip with Tucson Audubon. Since it was chilly, I drank a second cup of tea on my half-hour drive to meet everyone else at the McDonald’s in Green Valley. Our first stop would be the Green Valley Wastewater Treatment Facility. I thought I had planned enough time to get there and use the restroom before we went out into the field, but I failed to calculate that The McDonald’s was at the south end of Green Valley, a full 10 minutes farther than my usual trips to the north-end grocery stores. As a result everyone was just packing up to head out. Since I didn’t know anyone there and I didn’t know our destination, I just followed along, a decision I would regret later.

We drove out Continental Road to Old Nogales Highway. Our caravan of 5 or 6 cars turned left onto the gravel road that led to the Wastewater Treatment Facility. As we pulled into the parking lot and got out of our cars a Wilson’s snipe gave flight. After signing in we set up scopes and watched the birds in the retention and filtration ponds. Though the sun had risen it was quite chilly and I grabbed my jacket from the back seat of my car. We spotted American Widgeons, buffleheads, ruddy ducks on the first pond. Ring-necked ducks, northern shovelers, northern pintails and mallards were scattered there and across the other ponds. Coots were in abundance. A few eared grebes dived in the water. Along the shores we watched spotted sandpipers and black phoebes. In a nearby tree we were delighted with the appearance of a vermilion flycatcher. Overhead a bird sang out "toot, toot, toot". A "greater yellowlegs" someone called, and all binoculars followed the bird’s flight.

Walking down between the ponds we saw sparrows, horned larks, and pipits. Along the banks we saw northern harriers. To our amazement a herring gull flew in from the north, landed briefly on a pond, then continued its flight south. While I have seen many herring gulls in my life, I didn’t know until now that it was unusual to see one here. What would a gull do in the desert anyway? I suppose that is part of the fun of birding, finding something unexpected, something out of place. Of course, there are always the lists. Birders like to make lists; I am no exception.

I didn’t realize this until a few years ago. I had always written down where I had seen a particular bird, but somehow I discovered that people made "Life Lists" of each new species of bird that was seen with the date and location recorded. So, I started my Life List. Then, I learned about doing the "Great Backyard Bird Count" with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It happens every February over President’s Day weekend and it is a great way for new birders to get involved and contribute as citizen scientists. From there I learned of Project Feeder Watch where you keep track of the birds that come to your feeders over the winter. It helps scientists track winter migration and winter bird populations. That started me keeping lists of birds seen in my yard. From there it progressed to lists of birds seen in each state I’ve been in to lists of birds seen at my favorite birding sites and well, now I’m hopeless. I saw 34 species of birds at Green Valley Wastewater Treatment Facility last Tuesday. Just before we left someone spotted a wood duck at the far end of the near pond. Another bird out of place.

By the time we climbed into our vehicles my bladder was about to burst. We had been at the ponds for at least 2 hours. When the caravan pulled over to spot a northern shrike on the telephone lines I whinced in pain. It is a cruel fact of birding that restrooms are few and far between. Now, in the Northeast or even in the mountains of Utah one can usually find a tree or bush to serve as cover for the call of nature, but here in the desert at the wastewater treatment facility ironically there was no where to go and no bush or tree in site! However, I was assured there would be facilities at our next stop in Madera Canyon.

We drove the 15 miles into the canyon under sunny skies. Around me the desert fanned out in a slope from the Santa Rita Mountains. Along the roadsides mesquite and creosote bushes flourished with saguaros, chollas, and other desert vegetation. With each bump in the road I looked at the bushes with longing, each one a potential restroom stop, but I was in the middle of the car caravan, and I knew if I pulled over everyone else would also expecting to see some marvelous bird. I gritted my teeth and kept driving. By the time we pulled into the parking lot at the Proctor Trailhead, I no longer cared about birds. I was never so happy to see an outhouse in my life!

The mountainsides of the Santa Ritas folded in around us forming Madera Canyon. It was my first trip into the canyon since we visited last January for my husband’s job interview. We were out house hunting in Green Valley then and everyone we met kept telling us about Madera Canyon. That day we just drove to the top and out again. Now I was able to set foot on soil and experience the canyon first hand. We only saw a few birds at the Proctor Trailhead, so we headed farther up the canyon to the Madera Picnic area. It was here that I saw my best birds of the day.

Alligator junipers, with bark that looks like alligator hide, are interspersed with sycamores and live oak trees that shade the Madera Picnic area. Madera creek flows merrily by. Even as we headed down to the picnic tables we heard the acorn woodpeckers making a racket. It was my first time seeing these birds with their clownish faces. How can I describe them? They look at you from white eyes set in a black face with a yellow patch below their eyes and under their chins and a white band above their eyes across their foreheads. Their backs are black but atop their heads a bold red cap shines in the Arizona sun. When they fly their black wings flash with white patches. Acorn Woodpeckers live in communal groups and store acorns in holes drilled into a tree called a granary.

If Acorn woodpeckers weren’t amazing enough, I was thrilled to see bridled titmice. These tiny birds worked busily in the juniper trees gleaning insects off twigs. About the size of a chickadee and really the same color, they have a sporty little crest that pushes back off their heads like some punk hairdo. While their bodies are mostly gray, their faces are white with a black bridle stripe that starts from their dark liquid eye and rises back towards the crest, then turns sharply in a V down towards their throats. On top of their head their gray crest is also lined with black giving the bird a very distinguished appearance. I fell in love all over again. At the moment it is my favorite bird.

At the Madera picnic area we also saw mexican jays of exotic blue, a hepatic tanager, a Hutton’s verio and across the street, a rare Arizona woodpecker, which is the only brown woodpecker we have here in the United States. In all I recorded 18 species of birds in Madera Canyon. It was a productive birding day, though next time I'll leave a little earlier and forgo that second cup of tea!

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