Tuesday, January 6, 2009

My World: Arivaca Cienega

Amado Sewage Pond with clouds streaming off the Santa Rita Mountains 1-3-09 by Gus

In pursuit of my Big January Count Gus and I headed to Arivaca Cienega on Saturday morning. Our route takes us south on I-19 to the Amado exit south of Green Valley. As we exit the highway we take a left and cross beneath the underpass to the frontage road and the Amado Sewage Pond. I have never stopped here before but I have been seeing the pond full of winter ducks when w pass by on the highway. It’s early morning and the sun is still low in the sky as we pull up on the western edge of the pond. We pull off on the frontage road, which I assume will have little traffic, and try to see the birds. The pond is fenced all around with “No Trespassing” signs attached, but you are allowed to view the duck from beyond the fence. I count 6 species of duck here before we head on our way.

We continue our way west-southwest on Arivaca Rd. Here the terrain is hilly and the road winding. We greet the border patrol as we pass by, telling them to look for us on the way back, we are going birding! Soon the pinnacle of Baboquivari Peak looms ahead before disappearing beyond the horizon as the road dips once again. Finally we pull into the parking lot of Arivaca Cienega at 10 a.m. MST. Arivaca Cienega is part of the Buenos Aries National Wildlife Refuge and an Audubon Important Bird Area.

As soon as I open the car door a huge white and brown raptor flies low overhead. It looks just like a photo I saw on someone else’s blog of a Rough- legged Hawk, but I see the dark leading edge to the wings that indicates a red-tail. This puts me off and I am unsure of which bird I am seeing. Gus hasn’t gotten the camera out yet, so we don’t get a photo. Soon the bird disappears beyond the tree line and I don’t add it to my count.

Red-tailed Hawk soars over tree top by Gus 1-3-09

Though the sun is shining brightly, a stiff wind is blowing cold. I bundle up with three layers of shirts and we head down the path. Last year I found sparrows, woodpeckers, and wrens along this paved walkway, but today all is silent. There is no bird movement around as we walk through the Mesquite Bosque. Soon the trail opens up to the grassland and marshes of the Cienega. Towering cottonwoods stand as sentinels along the creek bed. At the point where the path diverges left and right a huge old cottonwood is often a great place to find Great-horned Owls, but today it is void of birds, except for raptors. A red-tail sits on a high limb and the sky is full of them. Red-tails circle endlessly above us. I search their numbers for harriers, but so far this common raptor is missing from the fray.

Arivaca Cienega by Gus 1-3-08

We decide to head east on the loop trail, hoping to find the Green Kingfisher in the pool where we found him last year. Nope. The pond is empty except for a lone Black Phoebe. This is also the area where I usually see Abert’s Towhees. Nothing. As the wind gusts past us I hold onto my hat. I am starting to think the wind is keeping all the small birds down. We continue around the trail under wind scoured skies. A red-tail lands in a nearby willow trailing bronze limbs like strands of hair blowing in the wind, but no other birds are found. No song sparrows by the creek in the forest, no great blue herons in the marsh. No towhees anywhere.

Searching for Birds by Gus 1-3-09
Then, at the far eastern point of the boardwalk, where the path becomes dirt again, I see movement low in the brush at the edge of forest and field. The initial shape looks like a flycatcher, but this bird is bobbing its tail like a phoebe. However, its shape is like an Eastern phoebe and not our more common Say’s Phoebe. What am I seeing? It disappears farther into the trees and I take the camera from Gus and try to follow it, hoping for a photograph, but the bird is gone. Later on I look it up in my bird guides and discover that the Gray Flycatcher is our most numerous winter flycatcher and is noted for its habit of bobbing its tail like a phoebe! ID confirmed: 1 Gray Flycatcher!

Cottonwood Giant by Gus 1-3-09
We wander past the hilly eastern edge of the loop trail with the marshland off to our right. Where the trail takes its turn back towards the west I see some motion and a slight patch of red in the thicket. A look though the bins reveals first one Pyrrhuloxia, then another. Deep in the thicket they hide from us, and we continue down the trail. In this open area we can see across the marsh to the cottonwood tree beyond where all is tan and blue.

The wind is starting to die down a bit as we enter another wooded section of the path. I usually like this section, for it reminds me of the eastern forest I prowled as a child with dappled sunlight speckling the trail before me. We are so close to the marshland now that the cattails and rushes are seen through the trees and red-winged blackbirds call from deep within. Today I hear the call of one, simply one red-winged blackbird. I feel lucky to have heard that one, for this is not the usual time of day for them to give voice. But other than that, this path through the woods is void of birds, whereas last year I saw towhees, cardinals, juncos and sparrows all on this section of the trail.

Red-shafted Flicker 1-3-09 by Kathiesbirds

As we emerge into the sunlight again I spot more red-tails soaring overhead, and another darker bird. Its black silhouette is different. Its long flat wings are totally black, except for the white wingtips. Could this be a Black Vulture? I thought they had all flown farther south for the winter, but as I continue to watch, I have no doubts about what I am seeing. I did not expect to see this bird on this trip, and many others I did expect to see are not here. So, I add a black vulture to my list and continue on the trail as it crosses a bridge over the meandering creek. Another Black Phoebe chirps from the rushes and nervously flits about the reeds. Then a yellow-rumped warbler makes an appearance. Things are starting to look up. Now the Marsh Hawks are up and soaring, white rumps flashing as they fly low over the marsh. Marsh hawks were recently renamed Northern harriers, but their old name is more descriptive to me, and I use the names interchangeably. Gus isn’t feeling well and heads back to the parking lot, giving me the camera as I continue on the trail. At this point the trail turns back across the marsh over a board walk, or you can take a little spur up a hill that overlooks the big marsh and a smaller marsh and pond. I go this way and am rewarded by finding Red-shafted flickers, white-crowned sparrows and a Wilson’s snipe.

Northern Harrier (Marsh Hawk) by Kathie 1-3-09

What I love about Arivaca Cienega is the way the trail wanders in and out of sunlight and crosses various terrains. It loops up hilltops and down to marshland. Golden grasses wave in this pale winter’s light. A single lesser goldfinch peeps at me from a treetop and deep in the wooded area of the marsh I find a Northern Harrier perched on a snag looking over the creeks, its owl-like face focused and searching.

Sunflower Jungle by Kathiesbirds 1-3-09

Once past the creek and pond the land becomes quite marshy once again. In my search for birds I try to follow the path I have before where I have seen meadowlarks, plovers and snipe, but what a difference a year makes. Apparently the wild sunflowers took over this part year and now their dry canes tower overhead like a bamboo forest. Still, someone has broken a crude trail through this jungle of weeds and I follow the damp path searching, searching, searching. But, despite sunshine and what looks like it should be good birdy habitat, all I see are weeds. After a few meters of this I finally decide to turn back as the only motion or sound comes from the wind and the rustling grass and weeds.

I have surrendered. I give up. There will not be a large bird list for me here today. As I emerge from the sunflower jungle I meet a wonderful older couple on the path. Their names are Hank and Dot, short for Dorothy and Harold. I am pleasantly surprised as I tell them those were my grandparents’ names. Hank and Dot are from Green Valley and they are newlyweds of 4 years. They tell me that they dated in high school, then married other people. When their respective spouses passed away, they reconnected after all these years, fell in love and married each other. Together the three of us walk back towards the parking lot.

Red-tailed Hawk in Tree by Kathiesbirds 1-3-09
We continue to see Harriers and Red-tails. As we cross the boardwalk some Eastern Meadowlarks fly up and drop into the marshland once again. Then, a kestrel races by us and we turn to watch its rapid flight. We find Gus sitting in the sunlight on a bench where the loop begins by the old cottonwood tree and I introduce him to my new found friends. Dot and Hank are staying to have a picnic, but Gus and I both aren’t feeling well.

Chipping Sparrow 1-3-09 by Gus

We decide to leave, but before we do, I hit the restroom once again, since it is an hour’s drive through a rural landscape to get back home. By now I assume my birding is over, but as we draw near the car I finally spot a chipping sparrow in the ticket. First one, and then another, then a small flock. Gus takes some photos for me. Then, when I emerge from the restroom I hear the chipping of wood in the nearby mesquite trees.

Female Ladder-backed Woodpecker by Kathiesbirds 1-3-09

I still have my bins with me and I finally spot a female Ladder-backed Woodpecker working vigorously on a fallen limb. She pecks and pounds away, undeterred by my presence. I hurry to the car to get the camera, since Gus is already in the vehicle waiting for me. As I start snapping photos I catch some motion from the corner of my eyes.

There in another tree is a vireo. When I turn to focus on it, it disappears in the thick tangle of branches but I find a Verdin, then a Bewick’s Wren and more chipping sparrows, all in the same tree! In my last five minutes at Arivaca Cienega I find five more species of birds!

In the end I counted 23 species of birds at Arivaca Cienega. A little over a year ago, on December 30, 2007, I counted 26 species of birds. We didn’t have the D80 at the time, and though it was ordered, it hadn’t arrived in the mail yet. It was our Christmas present to ourselves last year, and now we are putting it to good use this year. Arivaca Cienega continues to be one of my favorite birding areas in Arizona and today’s visit goes to show that you just never know what you are going to see. This is part of the charm of birding, or bird watching. It is an adventure. It is full of surprise and delight. It gets you outdoors and into nature, and for me, it renews my spirit. As an added bonus, you never know when you are going to meet some really interesting and kind people. I can only hope I will bump into Dot and Hank again someday. Since they are bird watchers like me, this is entirely possible! (Dang! I wish I had taken their photograph!)

Verdin 1-3-09 @Arivaca Cienega by Kathiesbirds
(click on any photo to enlarge for the best view)

Arivaca Cienega (site profile) is desingnated as an Important Bird Area by Tucson Audubon.

Birds Seen January 3, 2009 (Big January Count Continued)

23. Red-tail hawk: Sycamore Canyon
24. Chihuahuan Raven: Sahuarita
25. Northern shoveler: Amado Sewege Pond
26. Canvasback: Amado
27. Lesser Scaup: Amado
28. Bufflehead: Amado
29. Ring-necked duck: Amado
30. Ruddy duck: Amado
31. Black Vulture: Arivaca Cienega
32. Red-winged blackbird
33. Pyrrhuloxia
34. Chipping sparrow
35. Yellow-rumped warbler
36. European Starling
37. Bewick’s wren
38. Verdin
39. Plumbeous Vireo
40. Black Phoebe
41. Gray Flycatcher
42. Northern Flicker
43. Ladder-backed woodpecker
44. Wilson’s Snipe
45. American kestrel
46. Northern Harrier; Arivaca Cienega
47. Rock Pigeon; Arivaca Junction


Anonymous said...

Kathie, You are quite the Adventurer. It looks and sounds like you are always seeing something wonderful in life. Keep on enjoying it each and every day.

gina said...

all in all you had a great day with bird sightings. and some great pix! i have never seen a verdin...love his yellow head.

Anonymous said...

Kathie, I love your world.

Louise said...

Amazing how quickly that list is growing. Love the photos, especially the verdin. (I've never seen one or even heard of it before.)

Ruth's Photo Blog said...

What a fascinating walk trough your world.Sometimes it seems the birds play their own little games of hide and seek with us.I guess you won on this day.

Kathie Brown said...

Natural moments, thank you! I love to see the world. It is all a wonder to me.

Gina, they are the cutest little birds and very busy. Seen from the right angle you will notice it has tiny red epaulets on its shoulders!

Wren, how nice of you to say that! I love it too, but I still shake my head somedays and say to myself, "I live in Arizona!" I've been here almost 2 years now and still can't believe it!

Ah, Louise, the verdin is a desert species and I had never seen it before until I visited AZ. I saw my first one at Picacho Peak SP back in 2006.

Ruth, those birds do play hide and seek with us. I often find myself chasing one around a tree or bush. Woodpeckers especially love to play this game!

Vickie said...

Enjoyed trailing behind you on your birding visit. You introduced me to several new species, including the cute little verdin. Hope you are both feeling well by now.

Kathie Brown said...

vickie, we are doing just fine after a long afternoon nap, thank you! You'll have to come and see a verdin for yourself. I bet you'd do a great job painting it!

Larry said...

It looks like you are going along at a good pace.-That looks like a wonderful spot-you have such nice birding spots out there!

SandyCarlson said...

I admire your dedication and effort. This is a wonderful post.

bobbie said...

More amazing photos, and wonderful word pictures. Both shots of the red tail are really great, and I love the woodpecker.

Arija said...

Kathie, what a wonderful post! I so love to go with you on your birding expeditions and see the glories through your eyes. I'm no longer up to hilly terrain or long walks unfortuately.
Thanks for youl great descriptive tour.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Kathie.
Another interesting account of a great days birding..

Anonymous said...

You have a nice collection of birds in this post, Kathie. I like them especially the hawks.

I still have the old blogs but I also have new ones Abe Lincoln Blogs and also look at Abraham Lincoln's Blog

angie {the arthur clan} said...

It sounds like you had a busy but fun day while you were looking for birds to photograph. Your photos are all absolutely beautiful!


Kathie Brown said...

Larry, the diversity is amazing and if I can get to all the places I want to I WILL give you a run for your money!

Sandy and Bobbie, Thank you so much!

Arija, these hills were small and easliy climbed.

Roy, thanks! I be over to see what you've ben up to soon.

Abe, the same goes for you! I'm glad to see you getting around again! Good health to you!

TheArthurClan, thanks for stopping by to say Hi!

Susan Gets Native said...

Know why I come to your blog? Because you have beautiful photos of raptors.
: )

kesslerdee said...

I have never heard of this area, and I very much enjoyed reading about your visit and seeing the pictures. It is going on my list of places to visit soon!