Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Sunday in Rio Rico

On Sunday we took a drive to Rio Rico, which means "rich river" in Spanish. The Santa Cruz flows through Rio Rico dividing it into east and west halves. This "rich river' now flows with treated sewage effluent and it is not safe to wade in. However, the wildlife has found a rich habitat along its shores. We exit on Palo Parado Road and cross the river to Pendelton Dr. I feel so wild and western driving our vehicle, which we have affectionately named "Birdy" through the shallow water. Crossing here saves five or more miles in back-tracking. Beyond the river to the east the San Cayentano Mountains are framed by trees in this lush riparian area. This is also open range and fat cattle barely glanced at us as they contentedly chewed their cuds alongside the road.

We drive up the side of the San Cayentano Mountains to a place I call "Hawk Hill." High on the shoulders of these mountains, I never fail to see a hawk everytime I am here. We first came down on Labor Day, and a red-tailed hawk was perched atop a utility pole tearing some small rodent to shreds then. Today, a far more peaceful scene awaits me as I watch another red-tail circling overhead to the northwest with the Tumacacori mountains beyond.

These mountain slopes are covered with sparse grass, numerous weeds, and a few scrubby mesquite trees. With the lack of tall trees, the birds tend to use the utility poles and wires for lookout perches. Another bird species that frequents these mountains slopes is the Western Kingbird. While I have seen Western Kingbirds before, I have never seen them in such great numbers. Since I am new to this area, I do not know if this is just an autumn phenomenon, or a regular occurrence, but it is not unusual for me to see 8 to 10 Western Kingbirds together down here in Rio Rico.

As Gus and I walk about on the mountain slopes a few swallows swoop and dive around us. I watch amazed as these magnificent fliers flash past me. I see white rump patches and clean white breasts. I think of violet-green swallows but I don't know if this is within their range. Three of the swallows land on a nearby wire and start to preen themselves. In the overcast light they appear black and white and I am confused as to their identification, so I snap off a few photos and walk back to the car to consult my bird guides where I discover that this is, indeed, their range and only the violet-green swallows have the white patches that almost meet over their rumps and their clean white breast with the white coming up over the eyes. These little birds continue to preen for a long while before flying off again. When the sun finally came out form behind the clouds I could finally see a bit of the greenish color in their shoulders and wings.

I have noticed that the humidity is higher in Rio Rico than it is near Tucson. It seems there are more mosquitoes here also, as well as other insects. As I walk around on Hawk Hill I see a flash of motion out of the corner of my eye. I pause and turn to see this ginourmous spider spinning up its morning breakfast! The grasshopper is still alive and struggling. I walk carefully away, glad that I did not walk into the web myself. When I look back the grasshopper is gone and the web has a huge hole in it. Score one for the grasshopper.

Horned lizard on the slopes of the San Cayentano Mountains 10-5-08 by Kathie Adams Brown
Not long afterwards I discover this little guy crawling about in the weeds near my feet. He is not much bigger than the grasshopper that just escaped from the spider. He is lucky he didn't get stepped on. Let's hope he stays away from that web!

I glance up at the peaks of the San Cayentano mountains. I feel drawn to these peaks for some reason. I feel good here in their shadow. I like their shape and the play of light and shadow on these gray-green slopes. But there is something else that draws me, a connection that I can't explain.

We head farther up the mountain and I discover this brilliant orange butterfly on some wildflowers. I am amazed by its coloration for it is black and orange above, but when it closes its wings the strikingly beautiful orange and white body and under-wings are revealed. Nature is full of delightful surprises and hidden secrets, like treasures, waiting to be discovered.

As we head down the mountain I see a large gathering of some raptor-like birds circling over the agricultural fields of Rio Rico. I ask Gus to stop the car so I can identify what I am looking at. We are on a side road with little to no traffic, so I jump out and stand in the middle of the road gazing skyward with my binoculars. However, a man is working outside in his yard right near where I am standing. He starts to walk towards me with a questioning look on his face. I hastily jump back in the car and we continue down the hill to Pendleton Dr. Here the road follows the valley floor and as we round the bend the swirling flock is revealed before us. Gus takes advantage of a dirt road and pulls off to park. I jump from the car with my bins in hand and call to him to grab the camera. As I focus in I search for field marks to identify what I am looking at. The light colored body, dark hood, and dark flight feathers make me think that I am seeing Swainson's hawks. I have read about them gathering in massive flocks during the fall migration period but I have never seen this behavior for myself. Now, standing here on a dirt road in Rio Rico I watch dumbfounded as masses of raptors circle overhead. Then, I notice the dark shapes on the ground in the thick alfalfa. There, walking about like chickens, are more hawks! As we draw near the fence line the birds nervously take to the air. Some continue to circle, but many come to roost on the ground once again, or in the nearby trees that line the far side of the field. Gus snaps away while I search the flock for any aberrant birds. While I do see a few turkey vultures and I hear a distant raven, the majority of birds are Swainson's hawks, adults and juveniles, dark and light morphs. I estimated the flock to be 110 strong. I am underestimating, I am sure, for I counted 50 birds on the ground, and at least as many in the air.

Adult Swainson's hawk in Rio Rico 10-5-08 photo by Gus

Coming at you! Photo by Gus

Swainson's hawks dropping from the sky over Rio Rico 10-5-08 by Gus

Adult Swainson's Hawk in Rio Rico, AZ 10-5-08 photo by Gus

Juvenile Swainson's hawk in Rio Rico, AZ 10-5-08 photo by Gus

All the while we are watching hawks this little vermilion flycathcer is watching us from the trees that edge the field on our side. We finally tear ourselves away from the scene and head on down the road. A little more than a mile south I spot a gray shape on top of a dead snag. Once again Gus stops the car and backs up for me to see, but this is a busy road with lots of traffic. He pulls off onto the grassy shoulder and I jump out of the car.

Gray Hawk in Rio Rico on Pendleton Rd. 10-5-08 Photo by Kathie

This Gray Hawk watches me warily as I slip a bit closer and snap off a few shots. I am so excited but I don't want to disturb the bird. I also have my sunglasses on, so it isn't until I get home that I realize with frustration the photos are not as clear as I hoped. Still, we had a great time in the outdoors. We saw so many new things today, and I have discovered what I am sure many others already know, that Rio Rico is a very birdy place!

Come back tomorrow to see Gus' best photo posted here for Skywatch Friday!


Beth said...

Delightful! I want to climb that mountain, it looks so different than our new england mountains. The picture of the butterfly is my favorite but all of them are spectacular. You are such a talented photographer and writer.

Doug Taron said...

I love Rio Rico. It's where I stay for the conference I attend each year. A few years back, the Border Patrol would set up a checkpoint with huge lights at Palo Parado Road. Conference attendees would stop there in some number to collect at what was effectively a big blacklighting station. Your photo of the Gulf Fritillary butterfly is beautiful.

Celeste said...

What a wonderful day out you had. Gus did a fabulous job with the hawk pictures but I think my favorite is the Vermillion Flycatcher, I was suprised to see one on the Galapagos when I visited.

Lynne at Hasty Brook said...

How amazing to see so many Swainson's hawks together!! They would be a life bird for me as would that gorgeous Gray hawk.
Terrific day and pix!

Anonymous said...

Quite amazing to see all those Hawks in one place and that butterfly is unreal (such colour)

Shelley said...

So many great things that you saw! What a great place!

Kathryn said...

Kathie, I can see you are falling for Rio Rico just like you have for Sycamore Canyon. Loved all the pics, especially the butterfly, gray hawk and the vermillion flycather. All the hawks remind me of the day we went to see the eagles on Great Salt Lake. Great post!

bobbie said...

Amazing pictures, Kathie. Love Gus' hawks. And that orange butterfly is exquisite.

Doug Taron said...

Kathie, I just noticed something else about your butterfly picture. Gulf fritillaries are in a group of butterflies called the longwings. They can be unusually long lived as adults due to the fact that they can extract nutrients from pollen. You will sometimes see them with pollen packed on their proboscis. This shows up very well in your picture, particularly in its full-sized version.

Kathie Brown said...

Beth, wouldn't that be fun! Come on down and we'll climb it together!

Doug, thank you so much for all that info! I did enlarge the photo to see the pollen. Thanks for pointing it out! I didn't know this was where you went to your conference. Gus and I will soon go check out the other Sycamore Canyon. I can't wait!

Lynne, you would have loved to see all those hawks! I was amazed and breathless. I hope you can get down here someday. You will go bird crazy and your life list will grow by leaps and bounds!

Roy, I was so captivated by that butterfly. In all that gray-green it really stood out and the pattern is so beautiful!

Shellmo, it is a great place and we plan on going back.

Kathyrn, I thought of the day we saw all the eagles at the Great Salt Lake also. It's so funny to see raptors walking around like chickens on the ground! It's one of those things you have to see to believe. It sounds like I am making it up, but you know I am not! I wanted to post some of the photos of the birds on the ground but with all the brush in the background and the angle of the camera, they didn't come out as well. There was a lot of visual "noise."

Thank you Bobbie. Gus did a great job with the hawks. I took the photo of the butterfly. We were playing "Pass the camera back and forth" on this day. We hope to each have our own cameras one of these days.

kjpweb said...

Oh wow - what an array of shots! Your songbirds are outstanding! The Butterfly is though very common all over - truly one of the prettiest out there. The Gulf Fritillary.
Did you notice that the underside seems to be reflective! How cool is that?
Thank you for sharing!
Cheers, Klaus

Mary said...

That hawk! Kathie, thanks for getting me see, my feeders are stored away and I'm in a mood for a major bird fix!!!

Your landscapes and birds are gorgeous - so different from here in the east. I love it!

Your writing...always the best.


chrome3d said...

That was a nice walk out there! That red butterfly was so beautiful and delicate. So true, with all the hidden secrets.

TR Ryan said...

These photos are absolutely amazing!!! I am ready to move to your end of the country. Your posts always speak of this magical place in the desert. This is the best!

abb said...

Your photos are always wonderful - these are simply over the top! Cathy, they're just perfection. The butterfly is beautiful and all the hawks just incredible.

Arija said...

What an incredible trip you had with so many wonders not only seen but cptures as well. Wonderful shots, congratulations Kathie!

Anonymous said...

I love days like that - very full and very rewarding. Great photos by both you and Gus.

Granny J said...

WOW! That's all I can say about those hawks. WOW!

Mary said...

Great bunch of the hawks and that beautiful butterfly!

Larry said...

Sounds like some adventurous birding with you huling it through the roughlands of Rico Rio! Terrific photos-I especially like the butterfly-what brilliant color!
I would be pretty darned excited going out to an area like that and seeing so many birds that are unfamiliar to me.