Monday, April 7, 2008

5 days of Birding: Day 4, Patagonia

It isn’t until Sunday morning, March 30th, that we decide for sure to head to Patagonia Lake State Park. Kathryn and I rush around eating breakfast and packing up. The drive to Patagonia takes us about an hour as we wind our way down Highway 83 through Davidson Canyon, past the proposed Rosemont Mine site to the Sonoita Junction. There we turned right on Highway 82 where we see a Border Patrol Checkpoint we will have to pass through on our return trip. Highway 82 proceeds through the town of Patagonia with all its little artists’ galleries, craft shops and bars. I have never stopped to check out the town and we talk about doing it on our way home.

About 7 miles south of Patagonia is the State Park. It is a world class birding destination with the Elegant Trogon being the Holy Grail of the trip. Would we see the Trogon today? My heart pounded with anticipation as we turned in the winding road to the lake. I immediately started scanning the skies for vultures because this is one place in the state where you are likely to see black vultures. I learned from one of the naturalists later on that, while black vultures have better eye sight, turkey vultures have a better sense of smell, so the black vulture will often follow the turkey vultures soaring high above them. When the turkey vultures have gotten close to carrion the black vultures will spot it from above and swoop down to join in or even pre-empt the feast. However, the only bird of prey we spotted was a southwestern version of a red-tailed hawk. Here in Arizona our red-tails are lighter colored and often lack the traditional “bellyband” that most birders look for as a field mark.

We stopped in the visitor center first to use the restroom and get some information with the intention of heading out to the north end of the lake to the well known birding trail. The visitor center desk was manned by a naturalist named Ken who informed us of a 10:00 a.m. Avian Boat Tour which still had space available. The tour lasts an hour and only coast $3 a person. We didn’t even know about this and we had no idea we were so lucky to get spots on this trip. The next day we met people from Oregon who had tried for months to get space on one of the boat tours and couldn’t. At the moment we were blissfully ignorant and signed ourselves up, though we foolishly almost didn’t!

Since it was only 9 a.m. we had about a half hour to go birding before we have to be back in time to get fitted with life jackets for the tour. We drive through the parking lots to the north end of the lake and walk a short distance down the trail. The trail winds along the edge of the lake on a high bluff but soon descends through the trees down a steep path and through a barbed-wire fence opening. The north end of the lake is part of a rangeland where cattle still graze and come to the lake to drink. Right now the trees are full of yellow-rumped warblers gleaning insects from the new spring leaves. Coots cackled and squawk down in the reeds and we spy a green-winged teal dabbling in the shallow water.

We haven’t gone far before it is time to head back to the visitor center for our boat tour. As we are fastening our life-jackets someone rushes in from the deck to inform us a gray hawk is flying overhead. Park Rangers and visitors alike crowd through the doorway and spill out onto the deck, binocs raised to catch the sight of the gray soaring above the lake. In the trees surrounding the visitor center the great-tailed grackles whistle and call. Red-winged black-birds trill, and broad-billed hummingbirds hover at the feeders suspended from the roofline.

A group of 6 passengers, including Kathryn and I head down to the dock to take our seats on the flat platform-like boat. The volunteer naturalist leading the tour is a guy named Larry from Colorado. Ken, the ranger we met earlier is driving. A group of 4 other women birders sits at the front of the boat while Kathryn and I take our place at the back near Ken. Ken and Larry have laminated pages from Sibley’s Bird Guide of the most likely species to be seen on the lake inserted into a 3 ring binder to make it easier for all of us to look up field marks. We head out of the cove past fishermen lining the banks or out on the lake in their own boats. The campground is full for the weekend with people everywhere.

Out on the lake the first bird we see is an eared grebe paddling away from the boat, then diving beneath the surface. We find another near the shore with its tiny head, red eyes, and black “ears”. The birds are still in their winter plumage and have not acquired the gold ear feathers of their breeding plumage as of yet. Ahead of us at the north end of the lake a group of 25 or more Neotropic Cormorants are roosting on some willow snags in the water. Larry and Ken set about telling us that Neotropic cormorants are the most likely species to be seen here, however, they are not easy to distinguish from double crested cormorants. They proceeded to tell us that Neotropic cormorants have longer tails, are slightly smaller, and the bare skin patch at the backs of their bills is pointed instead of curved. There are a couple of larger birds that we wonder if they were Double-crested Cormorants, but in the end the consensus is that all were Neotropic. I have no complaints about this as I have seen Double -crested Cormorants from New England to Utah, but these are a new species and a life bird for me.

The boat slowly churns about the lake along the shore line. Patagonia Lake is really a manmade reservoir created by damming Sonoita creek. The lake is long and narrow with many hidden coves and arms. Along the western border we spot some black-crowned night herons roosting in the trees, but they are so far in and the boat so shaky that I don’t attempt a photo. The winds really start to pick up while we were on the water. Someone exclaims, “An osprey!” and all binoculars point skyward. We can hardly believe it when the hour is up and we have to return to the shore, but after a quick lunch purchased from the little convenience store in the park, Kathryn and I are really to go at it again and we head back to the north end bird trail.

This time we meander down the path through the mesquite and willows. Green-winged teals, dabble in the shallow water near the reeds. Yellow-rumped warblers bustle about the tree tops. Vermillion flycatchers are in profusion with a new one around each corner. We count 11 in all, including a mating pair. In the tangled vines atop a small tree we find a nesting pair of Lesser Goldfinches. Then, as we rounded a corner we come upon some bridled titmice bustling among the treetops covered in yellow pollen.

At the west side of the north end of the lake we have a clear view of the water again where ruddy ducks and northern shovelers share the water with the cormorants we saw from the boat. While we are watching the cormorants we hear a sound of flapping wings and look up to see a great-blue heron flying up from the reeds. It's slow heavy wing beats soon carry it above the lake to some other hidden feeding ground among the reeds.

Where Sonoita creek tumbles into the lake a Green Heron flies up and off into the woods. We try to follow it for a better view as Kathryn has never seen one before, but it circles around just ahead of us to land back at the creek mouth again. By now the winds are gusting and we decided to head back to our car. As we head back on the trail we spot a yellow warbler high in the willows, our first for this trip. I keep searching for a black phoebe for Kathryn for some other birders we met had seen one, and this is prime habitat for them. We are almost back when we finally spot one near the water's edge. On our way back along the trail a golden heifer crosses our path to drink from the shallow lake end.

Nearby a cinnamon teal floats unconcerned with the heifer's presence.

As we ascended the trail up the bluff we pause to photograph two white-tailed does walking along the ridge above us. While we never saw the Elegant Trogon, we did record 52 species of birds today.

It is late afternoon as we head back towards Sonoita and home, but on the way we pull off Main Street in Patagonia to check out Paton's Bird Haven, a spot every birder and park naturalist told us about today. Apparently the Patons feed the birds in the back yard of their modest home near Sonoita Creek Preserve, a Nature Conservancy Property. We find their home on a dirt road just past a wash on the left, as we were told it would be. At first we were timid about entering someone else’s backyard, but then we see other birders in the backyard looking through binoculars and scopes, so, we park the car, grab our gear, and walk across the front yard to the back.

In the backyard are park benches set up under a crude awning. When I see the set-up, I can't help but think that the bird watchers are being watched! Meanwhile, people walk about quietly or sit on the benches with binocs and scopes. As we enter through the gate we see a white-breasted nuthatch making its way down a tree to a nearby feeder, but we are quickly distracted by the humming birds buzzing around the numerous nectar feeders suspended along the roof line and from trees.

“Rufous on C” someone calls out, and we quickly lock on it. There is a Rufous Humming bird shining like copper in the sun. Numerous broad-billed hummingbirds hover over the feeders or sit at various ports drinking nectar. The rufous soon flies off but then the most elegant hummingbird I have ever seen alights on a perch and starts to sip nectar up its broad red beak.

It is a Violet-crowned hummingbird, another lifer for me as well as for Kathryn. We watch amazed as hummers flit from feeder to feeder. I take as many shots as I can sitting quietly on the bench. Then at the far end of the yard Kathryn spies lazuli buntings on a feeder over there. I creep up to a nearby tree, using it to shield my presence, and snap off a few photos from this position. While I have seen lazuli buntings in Utah before, at Kathryn’s house as a matter of fact, this is the first time I have seen one here in Arizona.

One by one the others leave as the afternoon shadows grow longer. Soon only Kathryn and I are left and we stuff a couple of dollar bills in the “sugar fund” box before we leave. In Sonoita we pass easily through the Border patrol checkpoint, then turn north on highway 83 towards home. We are exhausted and the sun is setting as we finally turn into Sycamore Canyon, but this trip was well worth it and I can’t wait to go back again. The Elegant Trogon is just waiting for me there. I know it!


Doug Taron said...

Sonoita Creek and Patagonia are also great insect spots. At night, the border partrol station that you passed draws amazing stuff in with its powerful lights. The border patrol guys have always been really good about letting folks collect around the checkpoint.

I've only ever seen trogons in Sycamore Canyon (the other Sycamore Canyon) before. I've seen them twice and heard them a couple of other times.

Kathie Brown said...

Well, Doug, you are one bird ahead of me and at least 5,000 insects I'm sure! I actually tried to find an insect to photgraph for you but the wind was gusting so hard that all the 6-legged creatures were hiding!

Aunt "B's" Backyard said...

What an incredible much to see, so little time. Oh, your shots are just beautiful. The bunting and hummingbirds- STUNNING! Love it all, thank you! You are an exceptional writer!

Pappy said...

Great photos and commentary as usual.

Anonymous said...


Great expedition your having and ticking off some some new bird sightings in the book as well.
The Eared Grebe is very much like our Black-necked Grebe that visits in Winter time.
We also get the odd Green winged Teal along with our common Teal
The Heifer looks a bit thin.

Anonymous said...

Where is this. I read through but didn't see the location. I am old so probably missed it. Sorry. Sounds like an interesting place.

Your photography is priceless.

I am a kind of wildlife freak but capture most wildlife in my backyard.

Abraham Lincoln in Brookville, Ohio

Texas Travelers said...

I have been there only once and it was great.

It was really nice to relive the trip through your story, which was exceptionally well done, with tremendous photos as usual.

5 out of 5 Stars.

Anonymous said...

Such a wonderful day! You are so blessed to live in such a wonderful place.

John Theberge said...

It seems as though this is a great place to visit, especially for nature photographers. I'd go nuts in a place like this.

Max said...

I once lived and worked near Patagonia and your pictures brought back some great memories! I tried several times to find the trogon at the lake, but was also unsuccessful. Viewing violet-crowns at the Patton's remains one of my favorite birding experiences.
Next time you are in Patagonia, you should get lunch at the Velvet Elvis Pizza, if it is still around.

Sandpiper (Lin) said...

Outstanding! What a fantastic place this must be!

TR Ryan said...

What a feast of images. Beautiful blog you have here!

Kathie Brown said...

Aunt B, I'm glad you enjoyed this trip. I can only hope you get to see it for yourself sometime. Thank you.

Hey Texican! Glad you liked it.

Roy, I guess that heifer does look a bit thin! Good thing she doesn't eat teals!

Oldmanlincoln, Patagonia Lake State Park is in the SE corner of Arizona off highway 82 but you take the Sonoita exit on Highway 83 off I-10 to get there unless you are coming from Mexico. Thanks for visiting my blog. I'm truly glad that you enjoyed it!

Texas Traveler, glad to help you re-live the journey. Do you have any photos from that trip? Have you posted them on your blog? I'll bet they are 5 star photos also!

JoohnTheberge, I bet you'd do the place proud with your photography. Perhaps you should start saving your pennies for a trip? As you can see, you would run out of time and money before you ran out of places to see and photgraph!

Max, I'm not done searching for that trogon. You can bet I'll be back. And I think someone at the park mentioned that pizza place. I will check it out next time I'm passing through. Pizza at the end of a long day of birding sounds great! Paton's was a real surprise for me.

Sandpiper, you would have so much fun here! I hope you can come someday.

t.r., Thank you. Your blog's quite good as well.

Amy said...

Kathie, you should seriously consider publishing a book of your photos. The bird photos alone should be put in a coffee table book followed by one of all the scenic shots of the plant life and desert.

Love the shot of those sweet little Rufous hummers too! Gosh aren't they somethin'?

Kathie Brown said...

Amy, thank you for the compliment and the encouragment. I know there are photographers out there far more accomplished than I am, but it's a nice thought!