Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Sunday Birding On the Greaterville Road

Saturday night I went to bed with thoughts of a drive across the Greaterville Road. The Greaterville Road stretches 14 miles from Rt. 83 near Sonoita on the East, to Whitehouse Canyon Rd, near Madera Canyon on the west. I read about it in my Finding Birds in Arizona guide which recounted what a scenic drive it is. However, parts of ht road are gravel and unpopulated as it passes through Box Canyon and the Coronado National Forest. Around here I am always aware of the possibility of encountering illegal aliens or worse, drug smugglers and bandoleros, the Mexican Bandits who prey on drug smugglers and coyotes-guides who lead illegal aliens across the border. I fell asleep that night with hope, but woke up with nightmares of being chased by bandoleros. I almost asked Gus if we could cancel the trip, but with the light of day reason returned and my fears dissipated.

I awake at 5:10 a.m. on Sunday morning just before the first edge of the sun pokes above the horizon. I gently awaken Gus and we rush about packing up drinks in a cooler and eating a quick breakfast. Still, it is after 6 before we leave the house. The drive to the Greaterville road takes us about 35 minutes. We turn west off the Sonoita highway near milepost 38 and our journey begins. Here the terrain is a gentle rolling grassland. Private ranches edge the road on either side. Cattle graze peacefully in the morning sunlight. The sounds of birds are everywhere. We roll down the windows and start taking pictures. The bright sun glares off the silvery dry grasses in the fields. Under a nearby mesquite tree two young antelope watch us warily. I step from the car and snap off some photos. A sensation of joy runs trough me as I marvel at this beautiful place and the fact that we are actually doing this!

The first bird we see is a Say’s phoebe perched on a wire, searching for insects.

In the top of a tree I spot a prairie falcon on the lookout for breakfast. We watch the bird quietly and Gus tries to get a photo, but it is too far away. The falcon flies to a nearby agave flower and perches on one of the arms. The agave stalk is over 15 feet tall and dry as it is last year’s bloom. These dry stalks decorate the horizon throughout the desert and many birds use them like trees to perch on and scan their domain. I've included this photo so you can see the relative size of the agave stalk to the nearby trees. Can you see the falcon perched near the top?

The buzz of bees draws my attention to a nearby mesquite tree in bloom. The tassel-like flowers shimmer invitingly in the morning sun.

There are enough blooms for bees and butterflies alike.

Gus has pulled the car over (somewhat) but there are no other vehicles in sight. Two Black-throated sparrows fly up from the ground, a barn swallow swoops over the fields, a Western Kingbird hunts form the phone wires, I spot a Western Tanager as it flies into the deeper cover of live oak trees. A woman passes by walking a blue merle border collie. I pay her no mind as I search out the window for birds. Gus politely says “Good morning,” and we pass on. We find a red-tailed hawk perched on one of the utility poles. Gus snaps off several shots. The bird gives him the old hawkeye as if to ask, “What are you doing?” After a few shots it has enough of us and flies off to a more private location.

The car creeps slowly down the road and we stop again. Here Gus photographs a Lillian’s Meadowlark-the western version of an Eastern Meadowlark from what I understand. It’s brightly striped head, white malar stripe and song reveal its identity. We have only gone a half a mile and we have already seen 11 species of birds! It has taken us 20 minutes just to get this far and we still have 13 ½ miles to go!

Alongside the road these beautiful ruffled white flowers are blooming like brides in June.

A small herd of black cattle gathers around a watering trough. Here I find 2 red-winged blackbirds singing from a dead tree. We’ve already seen several Cassin’s and Western Kingbirds. While the Cassin's prefer a more wooded habitat, the Western like the more open range. since there is a combination of open range lands and oak woods, I am seeing both today. While they look very similar, the Cassin's has a darker grey head and breast, a white throat patch, and a pale tip to its tail. The Western Kingbird has white edges to its tail and is paler gray on the head and breast. Both have a yellow belly.

In light of these descriptions, can you tell which bird is which?

A Common Raven flies overhead croaking at the day. The rolling grass covered hills are dotted with live oaks. It gives us both the slight feel of a drive through the back roads of New England, but of course, the trees and vegetation are all wrong. Still, we both comment on how peaceful it is, and how we would like to live here. We drive up around a bend where the pavement ends and the road forks. The left fork dead ends in Greaterville but the right fork leads us through to Box Canyon and Green Valley. The gravel road is well graded and we drive on. We pull over as the first vehicle of the day passes us. I see some action in the nearby trees and find a pair of nesting Bewick’s wrens flitting in and out of a hole in a dead tree. I observe one after the other bringing insects to the hole but when Gus tries to creep up and catch a shot the wrens fly off to keep their secret from us. We quickly leave the area so the parents will return.

A short distance down the road we pullover once again. On the north side of the road there is a lot of activity with turkey vultures and ravens. They are flying over the crest of a hill and swooping back into view on our side again. But, there in a tree at the edge of a small wooded area I spy a large dark shape. I point it out to Gus and he starts snapping shots of the hulking body of a Turkey Vulture. I know they are so common, but this is the closest we have ever been to one that wasn’t flying.

While Gus concentrates on the vulture, I scan the roadside scrub for smaller bird life. I find two rufous-crowned sparrows flitting about near a gully and two canyon towhees hiding out at the base of a large tree. As I step closer to get a better view of the towhees, I’m startled by the sudden flapping of wings. I turn to see a chunky quail flying up from its hiding place in the grass. Its chestnut rump is to me as it flees farther up the slope where it disappears into the vegetation near an oak. I am looking quickly with my binoculars for I read there are elusive Montezuma Quail in this area. The short chunky body and heavy flight lead me to believe it is one for it doesn’t fly anything like the more common Gambel’s quail, nor is the shape the same. I only wish I could have seen the head which, on the male, has a distinctive clownish pattern. The female is more subtly colored and I believe it was a female I saw.

The temperature is rising as the day grows longer, I stamp my feet to keep the flies from landing on my legs. Gus is still absorbed in photographing the vulture as well as the numerous ravens that are flying about. My active imagination wonders if there is a dead body over the crest of the hill, but I am in no mood to investigate and find out! We finally get in the car and drive on. A short distance up the road we find the red jeep-like vehicle that passed us earlier parked by a trailhead leading up into the National Forest. I spot yet another bird on an agave stalk and since it is on my side of the vehicle, I jump out to photograph it for later identification as a mocking bird.

We are on National Forest land now and the hills beside us are becoming cliffs. On our left side the small wash has deepened to a canyon. The road has narrowed to a single lane with many twists and turns. It would be precarious if we encountered another vehicle, but there are none. We stop in the middle of the road and take photos wherever we want to. When we are at the highest point we stop near some rocky ledges to photograph this amazing red flower that is growing alongside the road. I have never seen such a plant and the bloom is fascinating with scarlet pipes radiating from the leafless stem. Apparently this black insect thinks so also as it hovers near the red blossoms.

Above us I search the rocks and see something unrock-like. I pull out my bins and the shape flies up. Another turkey vulture? No, this bird has feathers on its head! It takes a minute for it to sink in that we are seeing golden eagles! Yes, there are two of them. Gus jumps out to photograph them and I drive the car up around the curve just in case another vehicle comes by. The eagles circle around us, flying over our heads and down into the canyon below. We have high hopes for the pictures but when we get home they are not as spectacular as Gus had hoped. The dark bodies against the blazing blue skies show little detail, but here is one photo I thought would at least show these magnificent birds.

Tucked along the rocky cliff I spy a soft pink fuzz. I ask Gus to photograph the sunlight glinting off these unknown pink flowers that remind me of bottle brush. Could it be a wild variety?

We have come through the pass now and Green Valley stretches below us looking almost like water. Beyond the valley the rocky tailings of the copper mines edge the horizon like a rusty ribbon. We see the bridge over the canyon that we will soon cross. It’s getting late and our stomachs are starting to growl. The sun has gotten so hot that we’ve rolled up the windows once again. We saw the most birds in the first 3 miles of the journey, but I think that is due to the time. As the sun rises the birds go down into the cool places of the canyon. We stop on the bridge to see what we can see and Gus spots a white-tailed deer as it moves from the cover of one bush to another.

As we cross the bridge and come up a rise we pass a sigh that informs us we are crossing into the Santa Rita Experimental Range. This area stretches along 53, 159 acres of the western slope of the Santa Rita Mountains and from what I understand is a research area for the University of Arizona. This is open range around here and it isn’t long before we see cattle in the road. The terrain has changed from grassland and oaks to mesquite and cactus once again. I hear the cackle of cactus wrens now, and the whit wheet! of a curved-billed thrasher.

We are weary, hot and hungry now as the road widens out and the terrain flattens. We spot another red-tail on a pole and our sixth of the day. Just as we think we are all done birding we spot a shape on the wires that turns out to be a Loggerhead shrike, our final bird of the day. It’s 10:40 a.m. and we drive to Green Valley for breakfast at Denny's before heading home.

In the end, we saw 33 species of birds that I identified, with a few more that I didn’t. I am always intrigued by the smaller birds now, but Gus likes the big ones that he can photograph easier. For those of you who are interested, here’s the final count:

1. Say’s phoebe 3
2. Prairie falcon 1
3. Western tanager 1
4. Black-throated sparrow 2
5. Western kingbird 2
6. Barn swallow 3
7. White-winged dove 7
8. Red-tailed hawk 6
9. Kestrel 2
10. Lillian’s meadowlark 3
11. Cassin’s kingbird 5
12. Common raven 10
13. Red-winged blackbird 2
14. Lark sparrow 1
15. Mourning dove 5
16. Bewick’s wren 2
17. Western wood pewee 1
18. Montezuma Quail 1
19. Turkey vulture 8
20. Canyon towhee 2
21. Rufous –crowned sparrow 2
22. Chihuahuan raven 8
23. Brown-headed cowbird 2
24. Ash-throated flycatcher 2
25. Canyon Wren 1
26. Golden eagle 2
27. Curve-billed thrasher 2
28. Cactus wren 1
29. Vermilion flycatcher 1
30. Verdin 1
31. Loggerhead shrike 1
32. House finch 3
33. Mockingbird 1

Note: Today's photography is by Gus and Kathie, with Gus taking the majority of the pictures and Kathie editing the ones used in this blog. Hopefully Gus will be editing and adding photos to his own Blog tonight. Then you will be able to see more pictures by clicking here: Gusto!


jalynn01 said...

Wow Kathie you had quite a birding adventure. I'm glad Gus was along what with aliens, bandoleros, Mexican bandits and Drug smugglers!! Yikes.. My mind always does that to me when I'm embarking upon a trip!!Then things look better in the light of day. My favorite of your photos was the Meadowlark. He looked wild and crazy! neat.

Sandpiper (Lin) said...

Wow! I've just been catching up here a little. You live in a magical place. Your pictures and stories are incredible. I would love to go there and explore someday.

Kathie Brown said...

Jaylynn, that is why I don't go out here alone, and the closer you get to the border, the more dangerous it is! Thankfully we only passed 3 vehicles in the almost 4 hours we were in the canyon and we saw no one on foot other than the woman walking her dog!

Sandpiper, would you believe I am only scratching the surface of places to be explored? This weekend Gus and I plan to go for a day trip to the Chirichahua Mts for our anniversary. I'm sure I'll get even more lifers and tons of photos! We'll be fighting over the camera. I'll have to bring my Coolpix so I can get some shots too!

Chrissy said...

Wow, this was some adventure. The number of birds you saw was incredible. Thanks for sharing with us.

Pappy said...

All those birds, and not one Coyote or drug smuggler. I guess you don't have to worry about those dreams anymore. Great post. Looks like a successful trip.

Anonymous said...

those are really amazing photos!

Tacoma flowers

me ann my camera said...

This was a very lovely read and the variety of birdlife, flora and terrain in such a short distance is amazing. I especially liked the photo of the Lillian's Meadowlark, and the mention and pictures of so many birds that I have never seen. This was a great page from your birding journal! Very enjoyable.

me ann my camera said...

This was a very lovely read and the variety of birdlife, flora and terrain in such a short distance is amazing. I especially liked the photo of the Lillian's Meadowlark, and the mention and pictures of so many birds that I have never seen. This was a great page from your birding journal! Very enjoyable.

Kay said...

Thank you so much for visiting me me Kathie and leaving your fun comment. I'm especially happy because it led me back to yours. Thanks for taking us birding with you. The photos are just gorgeous!!!

Kathryn and Ari said...

Hooray, Hooray, Hooray! I have such an indelible memory of my time at the SRER and your pictures brought it all right back to me: I felt like I was sitting in the car next to you (or behind you in the back seat and probably being really annoying by leaning forward to say "look at that!" a hundred times). The SRER is really beautiful, and it taught me to appreciate ocotillo--a plant I would have otherwise totally overlooked.

Thanks for this gorgeous post!

AphotoAday said...

That was quite an adventure...
Always fun going along with someone who knows all the names of everything...

Doug Taron said...

I have always found the warning signs about smugglers to be much more alarming than the reality, Greaterville Rd. is yet anotherplace where I have fond memories of great bug adventures. Box Canyon is one of my favorite places to blacklight.

The pink flower that you saw was velvetpod mimosa (Mimosa dysocarpa). I often find a large and beautiful black and yellow buprestid beetle on it.

Kathie Brown said...

Chrisss, glad you enjoyed it. You are welcome!

Texican, all those signs are somewhat alraming but it is the stories I hear on the news that really make me wary. However, our trip was so peaceful that soon drug smugglers and Coyotes were far from my mind. We just enjoyed the drive!

theysaywordscan bleed, that's quite a name! Thanks for your visit and your kind words.

me ann my camera, I have just learned about the Lilian's meadowlark. When we saw this one and Gus was able to take so many good shots it gave me the opportunity to distinguish it from the western. I heard these sing and their song is so different from the western's, which I am quite used to, so photos and song helped me sort it all out!

Musings, I was glad to visit you and I'm glad you found your way back here and liked what you saw. Come by anytime,you are always welcome!

Kathryn and Ari, I hoped you would like this trip! Glad you came by to see it all! Congrats once again on getting your book published!

A photoaday, well, I know the names of the birds and some of the plants, but I am still learning. Doug Taron helps me out quite a bit, for which I am extremely grateful!

Doug, thank you for the flower info. I wondered about that and was going to see if I could find it on the internet today. You saved me some valuable time! Sorry I didn't see your beetle, though. Thanks for the link. I'll check it out.

Kathie Brown said...

Hey Doug, I just went to the link and what a great place! I may add it to my sidebar and/or put a link in one of my next posts. It's a great way to I.D. bugs and congrats on all the images you have contributed!

Kathryn said...

What a wonderful day! Great pics and writing as usual. I feel like I am there with you. Did you figure out the white and the red blooming flowers? Thanks for including the cattle picture, I laughed when I saw it for it stuck me funny how the black cows are coming toward you and the red ones are going the opposite way.

Kathie Brown said...

Kathryn, no, I haven't figured out the white and red flowers yet. I'll let you know if I do. That picture of the cows struck Gus the same way! So, how long before you start your own Blog? Cute picture of the dogs there. I should have known that's what you would pick!