My wife and I (mostly me) are in the middle of a quest to see the rare California Condor. I’ve been told that one of the best places to look for condors is the Grand Canyon. But before going to the Canyon, we first took a detour to San Diego, since I also wanted to search for the elusive Wrentit, which I actually found. That adventure was described in last week’s column. If you somehow missed it, I can tell you right now, it was riveting.
After finding the Wrentit, we drove across the desert to Tucson. I had written about birding in Tucson a few years ago and thus wasn’t planning on doing it again. But I changed my mind after my wife became a local birding legend…or something like that.
Upon checking into our hotel, I went online to see “what was around.” The hot local news was about a Streak-backed Oriole that was eating oranges out of some lady’s feeder. Streak-backed Orioles are normally found in Mexico and only occasionally will one slip across the border. Since the location wasn’t very far away, we decided to check it out. My GPS guided us to the lady’s address and I knew right away that we had arrived at the right house. At least a dozen or more birders, each one armed with binoculars and cameras, were standing in the road next to the feeder-house. It looked like TMZ reporters were waiting for Taylor Swift or some other star to arrive…and eat out of the birdfeeder.
I chatted with a few folks and learned that the bird hadn’t been seen all day. After hearing the news my wife and I decided to take a walk around the ‘hood, partly because we were hoping for better luck someplace else, but mostly to get away from the other birders. I found a house on the next block that also had a birdfeeder, but that feeder was quiet, too. Then I heard my wife say, “I think I see it.” My wife’s birding knowledge isn’t the best, but her spotting skills are uncanny. I looked to where she was pointing and on the top of a utility pole was the oriole. (I told you she was good.) I lifted my camera, but the bird didn’t want its photo taken and flew to a tree a few houses away. We ran back to the group and told them we had found the oriole. What happened next still has me shaking my head. Instead of following us to the tree, they refocused their attention on the feeder…the same feeder that hadn’t had anything on it (not even Taylor Swift) all day. I was dumbfounded. How stubborn were these people? Why did they just keep staring at the same vacant feeder? It was like looking for a lost dog by continuously staring at an empty doghouse. Oh, well. We moved on. (BTW: The oriole never did return to that feeder. Stupid stubborn birders.)
A short distance from the oriole stakeout is Reid Park. This is basically an urban recreational park filled with walkers, joggers, ball players and teenagers making out. But right in the middle of all the activity is a small pond and the pond was packed with ducks. Usually the only ducks found in city ponds are Mallards and those white barnyard things. But this pond had tons of “real” ducks, including widgeons, Canvasbacks, Redheads, Ring-necked Ducks, Gadwalls, Ruddy Ducks and, of course, Mallards. It was the greatest variety of waterfowl I had ever seen in such a small area. Reid Park (in the winter) is the perfect location for beginners who want to study ducks up close, or for photographers who want to get really easy pics. You need to be careful while you’re driving there, however, since one of the streets may be still clogged with stubborn birders.
About an hour south of Tucson is the Madera Canyon area of the Coronado National Forest. The picnic areas in Madera Canyon make for easy birding, and right next to one of the picnic areas is the famed Santa Rita Lodge. While anyone can stay at the lodge, most day-trippers come to watch the lodge’s birdfeeders. On our visit we saw Mexican Jays, Yellow-eyed Juncos, Bridled Titmice, Arizona Woodpeckers and assorted hummingbirds. We also saw a coatimundi. What’s a coatimundi? It’s a weird furry mammal that looks like it’s half raccoon, half monkey and half badger, and I don’t recall ever seeing one on Cape Cod.
Ten minutes from Madera Canyon is Florida Canyon. This locale is not nearly as user friendly as Madera is. There are no signs of any kind and the area is riddled with unmarked trails. It is also where Brewster’s birding tour guide, David Clapp, told me he almost stepped on a rattlesnake. Still, it’s a good place to find really special birds (if you don’t get lost…or bitten). A Rufous–capped Warbler had been sighted here and I really wanted to see it. (Look it up and you’ll see why.) When we arrived we were confounded by an assortment of trails and cattle gates that had to be opened and closed. And there was no one around to ask for help. But then Frank arrived. Frank was a super-friendly local researcher who is studying Elegant Trogons (also in the area). I told him I was looking for the warbler, but didn’t know which trail to take. He said, “Just follow me.” Yapping nonstop as we walked, Frank told us about his work, plus all about the birds in the area.
At one point, I had to interrupt him to watch a Golden Eagle fly overhead, but then he started right up again. Finally, we reached “the old dam,” where the warbler had been last seen. This is where Frank left us, as he continued on down the trail. We were now in the Arizona wilderness all alone. To be continued…