Monday, May 12, 2008

Mother's Day at Las Cienegas NCA

(photo by Gus)

On Mother’s Day I get to choose what we do so I chose to avoid the crowds and get lost in nature instead. Gus and I drive east and then south on Highway 83 towards Sonoita through Davidson Canyon. Just south of mile marker 40 we turn east into Las Cienegas, a National Conservation Area. Here the terrain is so different from the Sonoran Desert that surrounds my house. We drive over a cattle guard into a vast grassland reminiscent of an African Savannah. Mesquite trees dot the rolling hillsides while wildflowers bloom along the edges. The frilly white blossoms of this wildflower greet us as soon as we entered Las Cienegas, a fitting start to Mother’s Day.

I have no idea what to expect from Las Cienegas. We have only been here one time before and that was late in the evening in the winter when raptors were the most common bird we saw. That day we only drove about 5 miles into the NCA before it got dark and we had to leave. We are here early enough today at 8:00 a.m., but already the sun is beating down and the temperature rising. At this time of year many of the birds settle down for the day by ten a.m., but we are going enjoy the drive whether we see any birds or not. With such an open area, Gus says he won’t get any good opportunities for photographs.

(Say's Phoebe: photo by Gus)

As soon as Gus pulls over to photograph the wildflowers we see our first bird. It is a Say’s phoebe, which surprises me since I haven’t seen them in over a month. Farther down the road a Cassin’s kingbird perches atop a sign before flying off to a nearby mesquite. The dirt road soon comes to a T and we turn left towards a creek area about 3 miles north. Here we pull into a parking lot beneath towering cottonwood trees. A large cottonwood trunk lies on the ground, its trunk naked and silver in the shade of its kin. The sounds of bird songs fill my ears as soon as I step from the car. My heat starts to beat like the wings of a nighthawk with fluttering anticipation. We head for the path at the far end of the parking area and enter another world.

The dirt trail winds through a bit of a meadow at first. Off to the right the cottonwood, willows and ash trees rim the small creek that flows. To the left mesquite and cottonwood trees grow on the edge of the meadow against steep caliche banks cracked by sun and water. Gus stops to photograph a butterfly feeding from a lavender thistle.

(Abert's towhee: photo by Gus)

I hear birds all around me, and we spot an Abert’s towhee hiding in the thick foliage. As the path winds closer to the creek we suddenly spy a bright orange dragonfly clinging to a grass stem. Gus captures these beautiful images of this jewel-like insect.

(Flame Skimmer Dragonfly Photo by Gus: Identification courtesy of Doug Taron at Gossemer Tapestry)

We drag ourselves away from the bug and enter the forest primeval, for that is what it feels like. We are here alone. All sights and sounds of civilization are gone. The tender new grasses and flower sprout beneath our feet. Duck weed floats in the slow moving creek. Lizards move through the grass and forest detritus and I startle easily after Saturday’s encounter with the rattlesnake. The dappled sunlight bathes the forest floor as we wander further down the path. Gus amazes me by spotting a summer tanager before I do. I have never seen one before and it is a life bird for me.

(Summer Tanager: Photo by Gus)

I marvel at the striking red of this bird set in the shadows of this dark grove. Soon the path narrows and hugs the giant roots of cottonwood trees on our left. To the right the bank has fallen away dropping 4 or more feet to the creek level. Gus and I both clamber over thick roots that hold the remaining soil together, but I can’t help thinking I wouldn’t want to be on this path during the coming monsoon!

(photo by Gus)

We finally reach an area that has flattened out and we stand beneath towering trees. It is so quiet, save for the bird songs and the gentle rustle of leaves overhead. In this thick forest there is not much undergrowth and I wonder if there are any birds here at all, but the forest is ready to surprise us as a vermillion flycatcher lands on the dead limb of a nearby tree. It is a little female, but soon a male flies into view.

(Vermillion Flycatcher: Photo by Gus)

The pair chase each other back and forth through the trees, then alight on a limb to mate. We linger in this area for quite awhile as more vermillion flycatchers and summer tanagers flit in and out of the trees. Suddenly I hear a loud ruckus in the trees above me. Gus and I tip our heads to see what is causing the commotion. We locate the sound just in time to see a smaller bird chasing a larger white bird from the treetops. A white-tailed kite! I have read about them on the way down here and now I am seeing one for the first time. I watch its white rump disappear over the forest edge and silence descends on the forest once again.

(photo by Gus)

We turn and head back to the parking area as my throat is getting quite dry. Once back on the other side of the giant tree roots we are closer to the water once again. Now I spot a yellow-breasted chat along the creek edge. Then I find another. Next, a song sparrow flies to a sapling and sings its melodious song, its head tipped back to let the notes roll from its tiny throat. Such a big song for such a small bird!

(Song Sparrow: photo by Gus)

I spot a flash of yellow and find a common yellow-throat. Maybe common for some, but this is also a life bird for me.

(Yellow-breasted chat: photo by Gus)

Gus is able to capture one image before the bird disappears into the greenery. Next we finally find the source of the constant tapping we have heard ever since entering this wood.

(Ladderback woodpecker: Photo by Gus)

Hanging upside down on a limb is a female ladder-back woodpecker. We find yet another yellow-breasted chat and then a small flock of white-crowned sparrows as they moves through the underbrush. I find a thrush in the shadows across the creek but it is too far away to photograph and it is only later that I discover there are 3 kinds of thrushes possible here. I should have paid more attention to field marks and taken better notes. Flycatchers abound in this wood, but I am woefully weak in identifying Empids, though the Ash-throated flycatchers are a bit easier.

(Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly Photo by Gus: Identification courtesy of Doug at Gossemer Tapestry)

As we step from the shade of the woods into the meadow again it is like stepping into an oven. The canopy of the trees kept us comfortably cool, but here in the desert southwest it’s all about radiant heat. The sun warmed air is hot and dry and we head for our car for much needed liquid refreshment. On the way across the meadow we find a Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly sipping on thistle nectar.

(Photo by Kathie)

While Gus rests in the shade of the car, I wander around under the giant cottonwood grove. I see more summer tanagers, more vermillion flycatchers, ash-throated flycatchers, and, to my surprise, a nesting pair of white-breasted nuthatches going in and out of this hole in a tree limb with moths in their beaks to feed their young.

(White-breasted Nuthatches in nest hole: Photo by Kathie)

Then, as I am about to leave, I spot a small sparrow hopping and digging beneath one of the cottonwood trees. When I look with my binoculars I see a rusty cap, and a white malar stripe bordered by black. My heart starts to pound for I think this is a Rufous-crowned sparrow, an elusive sparrow that I have been on the search for ever since I learned about it. I keep hoping to see one in Sycamore Canyon, but so far have only found Rufous- winged sparrows and Chipping sparrows. This species is differentiated from the other two rusty capped sparrows by its conspicuous eye-ring, and only one dark whisker mark. The rufous-winged sparrow has two. The chipping sparrow has none. Since I have the camera with me I snap off 30 or more photos. Once at home I am able to confirm my suspicions. Yet another lifer for me today!

(Rufous-crowned sparrow: photo by Kathie)

We drive out of the parking lot and head south out of the Conservation area. While we could get back to highway 83 the way we came in, we decide to drive the 8 miles south to Sonoita and circle back around towards home. We follow the narrow dirt road though a mesquite Bosque up low hills and down into wide desert washes.

(Photo by Gus)

We find two more Cassin’s Kingbirds and then a pair of Black-throated sparrows alongside the road. Then I spot a sparrow with a very patterned face. We stop the car and as Gus tries to get a photograph it flies off to the safety of a mesquite bush. Still, he is able to get this photo of the beautiful face of a lark sparrow!

(Lark sparrow photo by Gus)

Just as Route 82 comes into view we come to a cattle guard and to my surprise I see a male and female lark bunting on the dirt road before us. The cows in the nearby corral quietly chew their cuds and stare at the crazy humans so enthralled with birds. Our final bird of the day we find accidently as we followed the flight of another kingbird right in front of our car. Gus stopped to get a photo but the bird flew off to more distant cover, but there on a small shrub right next to it this horned larked clung to the twigs with sunlight pouring down, it’s feathery horns raised in beautiful display. Since it was on my side of the car, Gus handed me the camera and I got this shot, the last of the day.

( Horned Lark: Photo by Kathie)

In the end, after all my fears of not seeing any birds and Gus’ fear that they would all be too far away for any good shots, I ended up recording 29 species of birds (and it would have been more if I could have indentified the flycatchers and the thrush) and Gus got more than enough opportunity to get some awesome photographs. His favorite is the dragonfly and this shot of last year’s yucca blooms against the desert sky.

To read about Doug Taron's interesting adventure at Las Cienegas click here.


Doug Taron said...

I love Las Cienegas. It's been a favorite insect-viewing spot for a long time for me. There are always lots of dragonflies there. Your dragonfly is a Flame Skimmer (Libellula saturata). The butterfly is a Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor). Last August I was briefly trapped by a flash flood at Las Cienegas.

Mary C said...

Wow! Kathie - such beauty to behold at Las Cienegas NCA. And what a wonderful way to celebrate Mothers' Day. Those summer tanagers and vermillion flycatchers are so brilliant. I saw my first (and only) summer tanager in Tennessee a couple years ago. I have yet to see a vermillion flycatcher. Someday ... Thanks for sharing your very descriptive trip and beautiful photos by Gus.

Kathryn and Ari said...

What a great Mother's Day (and much deserved, I'm sure)!

Could you send a tanager my way? They're one of my favorite birds, and I hardly ever get to see them up here in Maine!

Ruth said...

What an interesting post and gorgeous pictures to go with it. Your Horned Lark looks different than our northeastern ones as does your Song Sparrow.

Pappy said...

All the photos were great, but the insect photos were my favorites.

Kathie Brown said...

Doug, as you can see, I went and read your post and added a link to it at the bottom of the page. Thanks for sharing it with me.

Mary, I was so thrilled to see the Summer Tanager. I saw a Scarlett Tanager years ago in CT and the Western in Colorado and Utah. Last fall I saw my first Hepatic in Madera Canyon here in AZ but this was my first Summer Tanager and I was so delighted! Thanks for commenting. I hope you get to see a vermilion flycatcher someday and soon!

Kathryn and ari, I will do my best. I'll tell the next one I see to hightail it to Maine. let me know if it obeys! :)

Ruth, That's interesting. I know the Song Sparrows have regional variations but I don't know about the larks. I could be wrong on the Song Sparrow but it was my best guess after consulting my bird guide. I know the horns are not always visible on the Horned Larks. What do yours look like?

Texican, you and Gus both! He has another view of the dragonfly that I may post just because it is so beautiful.

Anonymous said...


I very much enjoyed this great set of observations and photographs. The first photo looks like a location for a Western Movie.

Anonymous said...

Looks like a great Mother's Day. I like the orange dragonfly, very cool:)

Kathryn said...

I really like the orange dragonflyas well...I don't think I have ever seen one like it. I agree with Bookbabie--way cool!

Texas Travelers said...

Another great outing. thanks for letting me go along in spirit. It seem like I was there.

Wish I was there.

Congratulations to you both on the photographs. I would have a hard time choosing a favorite. Then again, there is no need to choose, they are all different. I liked them all.


Larry said...

That photo of the Flame Skimmer is fantastic! I wish that I had your command of the English language-It would make blogging so much more enjoyable for me.-It is a pleasure to read your posts.I would be in bird heaven if I was visiting Los Cienegas-You really saw some great birds!

Max said...

Great photos and birds from Las Cienegas! I spent a winter there living in the BLM house near the Empire Ranch buildings. We would regularly see four species of tanagers and dozens of other sparrows when we put out feeders. We also has a bobcat regularly visit our backyard. It truly is a little-known gem!

Max said...

Oops! I meant towhees, not tanagers...

Sandpiper (Lin) said...

I loved reading this and your pictures are fantastic!

Anonymous said...

Amazing reds in some of your birds!

Chrissy said...

Wow, great photos and lovely descriptions. You certainly had a fulfilling day.